Manchester United v Chelsea: Fans relishing epic showdown
In Portugal, Porto wrapped up the title with five games left to play. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga on Saturday with two games to spare.
In Spain, Barcelona have a lead of eight points that no one expects them to squander with four games to play. But in the Premier League, no one can yet be certain where the trophy will reside come 6pm on May 22.
For a competition that has been derided as predictable and tame over the years, England’s elite division has thrown up a season this time that, while it might lack one team of overriding quality, has retained an engrossing capacity to surprise over and again.
Manchester United’s defeat to Arsenal on Sunday has opened up the possibility that Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford this coming Sunday could again turn the title race on its head.
In Holland on Sunday, the leaders FC Twente will meet Ajax, second by a point, in what is effectively a League title play-off.
With two games left in the Premier League after next Sunday’s English equivalent of first against second, the game at Old Trafford will be as decisive only if United win.
But if they lose, there is a good chance that, for the first time in Premier League history, the title could be decided by goal difference.
As Patrice Evra said after Sunday’s defeat, United still have the “destiny in our hands” but, given that they enjoyed a 15-point lead over Chelsea until their defeat to them on March 1, that is no guarantee. “We have a massive game against Chelsea,” Evra said.
“If we want to win the title we have to beat Chelsea — it’s as simple as that. If we don’t then we’ll be in trouble.
“We just need to play the Manchester United way. I am not worried because we know we didn’t do the things we normally do against Arsenal.
“We have three games left and need to win every one. Every game is a final.”
A win on Sunday for Chelsea will take them level on 73 points with United.
Given that the two teams are already both level on goal difference, even a one-goal winning margin for Chelsea would give them a two-goal advantage in that category — which could be decisive if both sides won their last two games.
United, on the other hand, have dropped just two points at home all season — that 2-2 draw with West Brom in October — and, whatever Evra says, a draw would suit them fine.
How did we end up like this? In the 16 games Chelsea played beginning with their 2-0 defeat to Liverpool on November 7 and ending with a 0-0 draw with Fulham on 14 February, they picked up only 20 points from a possible 48.
They went out of the FA Cup to Everton on penalties and left for the first leg of their Champions League game against Copenhagen on February 22 with Carlo Ancelotti’s job hanging by a thread.
The win in Copenhagen was impressive and seven days later they came back from a goal behind at Stamford Bridge to beat United 2-1.
Since then they have not lost a Premier League game, although the home and away defeat to United in the Champions League was another blow to Ancelotti. United play Schalke tomorrow in a Champions League semi-final second leg. Chelsea have all week to rest.
Given this is the season for conspiracy theories: how about this one? That game against United which proved so pivotal to reviving Chelsea’s season was originally scheduled for December 19 before London suffered its biggest snowfall in 18 years.
The pitch was playable and the game was postponed because of the fear that the conditions would make it dangerous for supporters.
At the time, United were on a run of three straight wins, the most recent the 1-0 defeat of Arsenal on December 13. By contrast, Chelsea had not won a game in a sequence of five that included defeats to Sunderland and Birmingham City.
They would have gone into the game level on points with United, having played twice more.
In mid-December, Frank Lampard was only just returning from injury, David Luiz was not yet a Chelsea player (neither was Fernando Torres, although he turned out to be less important) and Didier Drogba was out of form.
In that game rescheduled for March 1, Luiz and Lampard were the goalscorers and Drogba came on to make an impact in the last 30 minutes. Rio Ferdinand would have been fit to play in mid-December, but was injured on March 1.
If United come unstuck, Sir Alex Ferguson may well reflect on those lost 13 days in December when, then on a roll, they were left to wait until the snow melted to play again.
It might not make any sense but, unlike in Portugal, Germany and Spain, it is still not over.