The Ramifications of Utd vs. Chelsea: A Preview

Posted on May 8, 2011


(Google images result for ‘Squeaky Bum Time’ – If you think there’s any better depiction, I will fight you)

There’s a lovely bit of journalistic exaggeration whereby the big matches are labelled ‘title deciders’, but the ones between big teams and smaller ones are considered to be ‘potentially pivotal to the title race’. It’s as though it would be rude to call a match a title decider unless at least 2 title hopefuls are present. It’s like posting a facebook album and calling it ‘best night ever’ after only inviting half your friends. I don’t really have a point here, it’s just an observation.

Notwithstanding the preceding paragraph, today’s match is clearly a 6-pointer if ever there were one. 3 points separating the two sides with each having just 2 more games afterwards, the cliché writers would say that we are now officially into squeaky bum time. Chelsea are running rampant after their winter struggles, leading the form table having won their last 5 premier league games. Their last premier league loss was to Wolves, all the way back at January 5th. Their last defeat in all competitions was, of course, the Champions League matches, against United themselves. Correspondingly, while Manchester United’s away form has been patchy at best, their home form has been spectacular. They have dropped all of two points at home this season (a draw against West Brom of all teams). In fact, to find their last home defeat, you’d have to go all the way back to Saturday April 3rd 2010 when they were on the losing side of a 2-1 match against Chelsea themselves in the same fixture last season. I’m guessing most people remember which way the title ended up going.

But for all the times you hear today that the winner of this match will go on to win the title, you should retain this little bit of perspective –

United are the only team that can win the title from this match.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the possible permutations:

Manchester United victory
If the red devils keep their home record alive, then that’ll be the ballgame. There’ll be 6 points between the two, so it’ll just take a draw at Blackburn to win the title (and if they manage to do it that day, it also pisses on City’s parade as it’s just before the FA Cup final. The only people who want to see this happen are United fans and Blackpool fans. Blackpool will be hoping to see a repeat of the Utd – Hull match from 2009 where a team of reserves (including young players like Rafael and Nani played in the match to keep the first 11 fit and injury free for the Champion’s League final. It didn’t do Hull any good, losing 1-0 to the second string, but Blackpool may need every chance they can get to avoid the drop.

Gives Chelsea a bit of hope and makes it likely that the title race goes down to the final day. Utd would need to draw both or lose at least one of the subsequent fixtures for Chelsea to make up the ground, but a loss would put Chelsea in the driver’s seat in terms of goal difference and raise the fun prospect of a goal-difference finish. The EPL has never been decided on goal difference before and after the season we’ve had, it would feel like a Rocky film being decided on points (not that something that dull would ever happen). Wonderfully, there’s also a tiny possibility of them finishing on the same points, goal difference and goals scored, at which point I understand a play-off would be needed (although at that point I’d just say to toss a coin). Chelsea have scored 5 fewer (66 to 71) so it would need results like (Blackburn 1 – 0 Utd, Chelsea 4 – 3 Newcastle, Utd 3-0 Blackpool, Everton 3-4 Chelsea). If this highly improbable chain of results happened, both teams would end with 77 points, goal difference of +40, and 74 (plus any scored in the United-Chelsea draw) goals scored. Not saying it’s going to happen, but tell me which of the results is so wildly unlikely.

Chelsea Victory
For the neutrals, and of course the Chelsea fans, this is the one to hope for as it guarantees a final day finish. It brings both teams to level points, with Chelsea having a goal difference advantage of 2x however many they win by. A win by 2 or more goals makes it very hard for United to stay in contention, and they’d need to hope that Chelsea drop points. But if it’s a nervy finish, then the remaining four matches become a contest to see who can score the most goals. United would have at least a 2 goal deficit to make up, but have an easier run-in. Blackburn were whomped 7-1 in the reverse fixture and Blackpool are notorious for their defensive frailty. Conversely, Chelsea’s matches against Newcastle and playing Everton at Goodison aren’t the type of fixtures that you can pick a clear winner from, let alone expect a rout. The benefit for Chelsea is that Newcastle are safely in mid-table but beyond the reach of Europe, and at 5 points below 5th place having played a game more, I’d be amazed if Everton are in the running for anything on the last day (although the match against Man City yesterday shows that they can still hit hard). In contrast, arguably both of Alex Ferguson’s opponents are still in the relegation picture and Blackpool in particular could come to Old Trafford on the last day needing to pick up points.

That’s the lay of the land points-wise. A Manchester win near enough guarantees them the title, a draw makes them prohibitive favourites, and a Chelsea win leaves the teams level where one has a more favourable fixtures list and the other an advantageous goal difference.

It’s still possible for one or both teams to run out of steam, for Arsenal to jump into 2nd or even just about possibly for Arsenal to make a title push. 6 points behind the leaders means it’s incredibly unlikely, but plenty of people were writing Chelsea off a few months ago. It turned out that they can do pretty well even without the sage advice of Ray Wilkins after all.