Has this been the best Premier League season yet?
Tight at the top, a battle at the bottom, an intriguing race for Europe, a set of freak results and a whole host of wonder goals – it has been a vintage season, writes Jack Pitt-Brooke
Tuesday 08 May 2012
There is only one set of games left in this Premier League season of restorative excitement. English football has been shown up in Europe, unfortunately, but for the 369-game body of the season, the thrills and entertainment have been better than they have been for quite some time. A new shade to the title race, some daring attacking football and a quantity and quality of goals far outstripping what we had grown used to.
1 The title race
Titles races are not often as rich as this. To have the two competing teams play each other in the final weeks of the season, in an effective play-off for the trophy, is a rare treat. Then there is the local rivalry between the top two, a relative rarity, not seen since Arsenal and Chelsea's duels almost 10 years ago. And, of course, the fickle nature of it: City were five points clear in December, United eight ahead at Easter, and now City lead on goal difference. There might be a complaint over quality; these are not two all-time best teams, but for drama it has been one of the very best.
2 The race for fourth
In a sense it is a shame that "the race for third and fourth" is so important, but it is, and this has been a good one. The two established names of Chelsea and Arsenal have had poor league seasons, and until Sunday afternoon looked as if they might be outflanked by exciting Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United sides. Spurs were the form team of the autumn, but faded, while Newcastle started well, dipped, then came back. Trying to squeeze four teams into two places will always be exciting, and so it has proved, with the places still competitive.
No one would argue that the world's best players play in England. But we have been treated to arguably the three finest centre-forwards in Europe. Robin van Persie, having conquered injuries, has been brilliant all season. He has scored 30 goals, dragging Arsenal back to competence, winning games on his own. Wayne Rooney, who has 26, has done almost as well for United, keeping a fairly flat team in the title race. Sergio Aguero has better team-mates, but his return of 22, for a debut Premier League season, is quite something. Once settled he could well outscore the others next year.
The quality of competition is so good that it feels churlish to choose some goals over others. And the range has been so broad that it caters for all preferences. There have been audacious volleys from distance by Peter Crouch and Papiss Cissé, which shocked Manchester City and Chelsea respectively. There was a perfect 40-yard chip from Liverpool's Luis Suarez at Carrow Road. For technical perfection, Van Persie's first-time strikes out of the sky against Everton and Liverpool were very special. And for those who enjoy build-up, Hatem Ben Arfa's runs before his Blackburn and Bolton goals are just as mesmerising to the fan as they were to the defences.
5 Big games
The time of the grinding tactical chess match is over. This season, games between the top sides have not been characterised by caution, containment and swamped midfields but the opposite. No more mutual respect: big teams have attacked other big teams, and the results have been thrilling. Manchester United mauled Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford, before losing 6-1 there to Manchester City, creating a goal difference deficit which still haunts them. City also won 5-1 at Tottenham, while Arsenal won 5-3 at Chelsea, and overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Spurs 5-2, redirecting both of their seasons. It could be an outlier, but it has certainly been fun.
6 Relegation battle
Having two relegation berths still gaping in the penultimate weekend is a good sign. Too many teams this season have been bad enough to go down, and so some will inevitably stay up by default. While Wolverhampton Wanderers have fallen away since Mick McCarthy's dismissal, the rest have kept their heads near the surface. Wigan Athletic's stirring burst of form has sent them towards safety, while Queen's Park Rangers' run of home wins has kept them competitive. Blackburn looked down, then safe, now down again, while Bolton have also surged and then faded. They look to be the two on whom the wheel will stop, but who knows?
Rolling back the years: other super seasons
The title race in 1994-95
Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn Rovers were dramatically crowned champions on the final day of the season, winning the title by a point, even after losing 2-1 at Liverpool, as Manchester United could only draw 1-1 with West Ham at Upton Park.
The race for Champions League football in 2002-03
In a game then dubbed "the £20m match", Chelsea overcame Liverpool 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in the final match of the season to qualify for the Champions League. Jesper Gronkjaer's curling effort consigned Liverpool to the Uefa Cup. Chelsea were bought by Roman Abramovich soon after, turning the £20m to nearly £1bn.
Forwards thrived in 2007-08
Cristiano Ronaldo scored an imperious 31 league goals for Manchester United, a total not yet topped in a 38-game Premier League season. Liverpool's Fernando Torres and Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor (both 24) also enjoyed prolific campaigns for their clubs.
The relegation battle in 2008-09
A close battle for survival between four teams concluded on the final day, when any two of Sunderland, Hull City, Newcastle and Middlesbrough could have gone down. Newcastle, managed by Alan Shearer, lost 1-0 at Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough were defeated 2-1 at West Ham, relegating two of the three North-east clubs.
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