Everything has changed in the last few days, as the English Premier League’s top six teams look set for one of the best season finishes in living memory.
Sure, the race for the title itself is well and truly down to two horses. But they could be Dunaden and Red Cadeaux, so closely are they tied in their exhausted slog down the home straight.
Manchester City’s dramatic 1-0 defeat of Manchester United on the weekend has left the sides on 83 points apiece with two games to play.
After two months playing second fiddle, City are suddenly top of the table again, the small matter of goal difference putting them in prime position for a drought-breaking Premiership win.
City had earlier spent 20 matches in first spot, losing just three, before a run of one win in five matches surrendered the lead to United.
Now, they’ve won four in a row, scoring 13 goals and conceding one. Crucially, aside from the points, the run has also taken their goal difference a comfortable eight goals clear.
United have lost only five times this year, but two of those in their last four matches, coupled with Everton’s desperately late goals to snatch that extraordinary 4-4 draw, has been enough to see them slip to second.
From here, United has Swansea and Sunderland, strong mid-table contenders at 11th and 12th. City has the tougher task in quelling Newcastle, followed by a relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers side that conceded six goals to Chelsea last start, but beat Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Swansea in seven matches before that.
On the face of it, fifth versus sixth shouldn’t be enough to shape a table, but it could well be the case tonight, Australian time, when Newcastle take on Chelsea.
The gap from second to third may stand at 17 points, but there’s plenty going on in the pack adrift of the ladder leaders.
At present, Arsenal sit third with 66 points, Tottenham and Newcastle fourth and fifth with 62. While still sixth, Chelsea’s late-season resurgence sees them lurking one point behind those two, with a superior goal difference to both.
Arsenal should hold its spot, with a home game against a modest Norwich followed by a trip to West Brom, though the Baggies are now 10th and have beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, and Newcastle this season.
But late-season panic is a factor. Crucially, the three lower teams have three games left to play, while Arsenal has only two.
Which is where tonight’s game comes in. A win for either Newcastle or Chelsea will push them to fourth, either one or two points adrift of a club that still has moments of fragility.
So closely balanced is the table that had Chelsea snagged a goal against Arsenal the previous weekend, they would now sit fourth, looking to a win over Newcastle to displace Arsenal in third.
A draw between their rivals would suit Arsenal, but still push Tottenham from fourth to sixth. Tottenham’s fate is in their own hands, and the equation is simple. They must match the efforts of Newcastle and Chelsea over the remaining three rounds, in winnable games against Bolton, Aston Villa, and Fulham.
Their Bolton match starts not long after that of their top-six rivals, so if they can win, any demotion would be fleeting. But two more wins will need to follow.
If Newcastle lose tonight, their hopes are gone. Their final two matches are against Manchester City and seventh-placed Everton, by far the toughest run-in.
Liverpool have underwhelmed this season, but could prove Chelsea heart-breakers again. The modern rivals face off twice in four days starting this weekend, in the FA Cup final and then the league. Chelsea’s final league game is against likely relegation victims Blackburn.
There is a lot at stake for all these teams. Fourth place, of course, gives entry to the Champions League, with its lucrative pay-days for club owners, its invaluable television coverage, its appeal to top-line players, and its undeniable prestige. The bright lights are alluring to all.
Tottenham had cruised comfortably in third place for 18 matches, before one win in nine games saw them drop abruptly to fifth. Their win against Blackburn last weekend lifted them back to fourth on goal difference. For them to surrender their hard-fought campaign in what has been a breakthrough year would be devastating.
Newcastle, too have had a season of coming good, after so many struggles in the past. They’ve just won six in a row to surge into the top four as a genuine contender for the first time in many years, before their aimless loss to Wigan last start cost them an invaluable three points.
As for Chelsea, Roman Abramovich’s thirst for European football is well documented. His side have a terrific chance to ensure their place by winning this year’s final, which if they did finish outside the top four at home, would cost the fourth-placed club its spot.
But that certainly can’t be taken for granted when the opponent is a strong and confident Bayern Munich, and the draw is so unfortunate as to stage the final on German soil. A top-four finish at home would ease that element of pressure leading into the final.
The fact that Chelsea are still in contention for either is remarkable. By early March, their season looked utterly shot. They’d just lost 3-1 in the Champions League away leg against Napoli, drew 1-1 in the FA Cup against Championship side Birmingham, and lost in the league 1-0 against West Brom.
The arrival of caretaker manager Roberto di Matteo saw a dramatic upswing. On March 6 Chelsea beat Birmingham in the FA Cup replay, edged Stoke in the league, then overturned Napoli’s European advantage in a remarkable 4-1 home triumph sealed in extra time.
From there they’ve proved unstoppable in cup competitions. Successive five-goal FA Cup scores brushed aside Leicester City and Tottenham, while they also won through their four Champions League ties; two matches against Benfica and two against the might of Barcelona.
Their league campaign has stabilised, but hasn’t afforded quite the same momentum, with the seven matches since that momentous Napoli win beginning with a tough 2-1 away loss to Manchester City. A draw and two wins followed, before two more draws saw Chelsea drop to sixth as Newcastle surged.
But as Newcastle fans know only too well, a surge doesn’t take you home. Only a sustained performance can. As to who can deliver that performance, we can only tune in tonight to see.