How big freeze turned up the heat in Europe's best title race
Chelsea's key win over United might not have happened without the intervention of December's cold snap, writes Sam Wallace
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 22 May.
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 the Netherlands on Sunday 15th May, the leaders FC Twente will meet Ajax, second by a point, in what is effectively a play-off for the League title. 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 1 March, 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 Bromwich Albion 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 7 November 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 at home and left for the first leg of their Champions League game against Copenhagen on 22 February 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 19 December before London suffered its biggest snowfall in 18 years. The pitch was playable and the game was postponed because of the usual fears that the conditions around the stadium 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 13 December. 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 1 March, Luiz and Lampard were the goalscorers in a 2-1 win 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 come 1 March he was injured.
If it is the remorseless demands of the domestic and Champions League schedule that do for United in the next five days, then Sir Alex Ferguson may well reflect on those lost 13 days in December when United, then on a roll, were left to wait until the snow melted to play again.
His most immediate problem is how many of his key men he rests for tomorrow's game against Schalke with Sunday's match in mind. When you consider that Wayne Rooney has started 20 of United's last 24 games – and probably would have played two more were it not for his suspension – you have to wonder whether he could do with a breather.
Although it will be no consolation to Ferguson, his team's inability to win big games away at Chelsea, Liverpool and now Arsenal in the last two months has kept this title race interesting. Even Arsenal now have the possibility that if they beat Stoke City on Sunday and Chelsea win, Arsène Wenger's side could be within three points of the leaders with two to play.
With all the gloom around Wenger and his team over the last few weeks that possibility just seems ludicrous. But no more ludicrous than United squandering a 15-point lead over Chelsea or the chance that Ancelotti might still get sacked even if he wins the title this season. It might not make any sense but, unlike in Portugal, Germany and Spain, it is still not over.
Fight to the finish key title battlegrounds
1. Javier Hernandez has brought the best out of Wayne Rooney by allowing him to drop into the No 10 role, which showcases his imagination.
2. Rio Ferdinand's return gives United the best central defensive pair around. They've conceded just three goals in six games since his comeback.
3. With two home games and a trip to Ewood Park, United's finishing straight should offer easier points and goals than Chelsea's fixtures.
1. Does Sir Alex Ferguson know his best midfield? Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick are in possession, but Anderson and Darren Fletcher merit places.
2. United will probably play Barcelona six days after the league concludes and the lure of the European Cup might distract them from the title.
3. United lost the title last year after a springtime home defeat to Chelsea. "Squeaky bum time" might play with their focus on Sunday.
1. Chelsea have momentum. They have won eight of their last nine league games, and have taken 35 from the last 42 possible points.
2. With the January signings of David Luiz and Fernando Torres, as well as the return of Yossi Benayoun, Chelsea have the fresher legs.
3. With no European final, and the knowledge that Carlo Ancelotti's job is at stake, the Chelsea players have a clarity of purpose this month.
1. Three months after signing Torres, it is still not clear which strikers, and which system, best suit Chelsea. Dropping Torres is hard.
2. After Old Trafford, they still have to go to Goodison Park. A tough place to gorge on goals.
3. Winning at Old Trafford is difficult. Visiting teams very rarely do so: and Chelsea must.
Manchester United 8 May Chelsea (h); 14 May Blackburn (a); 22 May Blackpool (h)
Chelsea 8 May Manchester United (a);
15 May Newcastle (h); 22 May Everton (a)
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