Manchester United’s ability to win English Premier League titles is beyond question. On Sunday though, the 11-time EPL champion will have to prove it can avoid throwing one away.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side goes into its clash against Chelsea facing a scenario that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago, when it was riding the crest of a season-long wave that saw it open up a huge gap at the top of the table.
Back then Chelsea was dead and buried, 15 points behind United and seemingly more likely to finish outside the top four and miss out on next season’s Champions League that to mount a spectacular revival.
However, the combination of a series of United slip-ups and a drastic overhaul of Chelsea’s form has narrowed the gap to three points with only three games to play, and given English soccer its version of the Super Bowl.
A Chelsea victory in the dragon’s lair of Old Trafford on Sunday would give it pole position in the title race and the chance to retain the trophy with two more victories in its final two games. A United win would effectively put the whole thing to bed, while a draw would also be a more than acceptable result for the home side.
While there are nine other EPL games taking place this weekend, there is only one that everyone in England is talking about. From the moment United booked its place in the Champions League final by comfortably beating Schalke on Wednesday, all thoughts immediately turned to the Chelsea showdown. Sunday’s game is the kind of do-or-die meeting that the season looked like it would be missing as it threatened to peter out into a one-sided conclusion.
It was United’s consistency – going through more than half the campaign undefeated – that opened up the gap but the effect of maintaining a challenge both domestically and in Europe appears to have taken its toll. Last weekend’s defeat at Arsenal, while Chelsea was completing its eighth win in nine games, brought the title race fully back to life.
And while there is not necessarily panic in the United camp, there is certainly concern, despite the calming words of veteran Ryan Giggs. “We have not thought about losing a big lead,” Giggs told reporters this week. “We have had some tough games where we have dropped points but generally our form is good. We are confident we can beat any team at Old Trafford.”
Chelsea will like its chances though, having found a golden run of form despite the trouble $79 million signing Fernando Torres has had in fitting in to a new system since his move from Liverpool in January. The visitors will resolve to shut down United’s revitalized striker Wayne Rooney wherever possible, perhaps using Jon Obi Mikel in a midfield enforcer role in an attempt to blunt Rooney’s counter-attacking powers.
Both sides will know that Sunday’s game could be about more than just the outcome of this season’s EPL title and represents a critical point in English soccer’s endless power struggle. If United slips up, misses out on the trophy and also fails to get past Barcelona in the Champions League final, all its fine efforts of the past eight months will be overshadowed.
If it can win both, however, this season would go down as one of the most monumental in club history, perhaps on par with the Treble-winning campaign on 1998-99. In that scenario, Chelsea may look to a future without its old and established guard of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry – while head coach Carlo Ancelotti’s days could also be numbered.
This season has not also brought the highest standard of soccer, due in part to the fact that many leading players have hardly had a break in nearly two years, thanks to last summer’s World Cup exertions.
But it has been a thriller nonetheless and it deserves to boil down to one showcase game, an afternoon that most likely has a cherished trophy and a bunch of far-reaching repercussions riding upon it.