And then there were two in the Prem title race
After some 360 games and almost as many different league leaders, here's the one thing we know for sure: nothing.
This season has been so wildly unpredictable that I just phoned in a last-second Ladbrokes bet on Sunderland to win the league. But barring a final-day Mackem miracle, it does seem that either Man City or Liverpool will take home the prize, simply because they're the only two clubs with a realistic mathematical chance to do so. But if anyone thinks that City is going to coast to victory, they're crazier than Paolo Di Canio on an anti-condiment rant.
Does City have two easily winnable home matches left to play? Yes. Do they have a much better goal differential than Liverpool? Of course. But has the fat lady sung yet? No, she has not. Well, there was a corpulent woman at my subway stop singing "Blue Moon," but that shouldn't have any bearing on the stomach-churning run-in.
As someone who has endured his own fair share of close-but-no-trophy pain over the past nine seasons, I'm here to share my hard-lost wisdom with all Liverpool fans and anyone else whose browser got stuck on this website. "Buck up, Reds, it's not over until it's over, or until Fabricio Coloccini's attempted bicycle-kick clearance goes directly into his own net to give Liverpool a 6-0 win over Newcastle, which coupled with its 8-0 annihilation of Crystal Palace wipes out City's goal advantage and ..." A man can dream, can't he? I know this to be true. Believe it or not, there was a time this season that I dreamed of Arsenal winning the title after the Gunners spent 127 days at the summit. Instead I get to settle for a 17th consecutive Champions League berth and the it-never-gets-old satisfaction of finishing above Spurs for the 19th year in a row. And if you still don't believe that good things can happen to delusional people in the Premier League, I give you Exhibit A: Sunderland. The Black Cats were down to their ninth life before performing a relegation-defying escape that would make David Blaine weep with envy while desperately trying to claw out of his Lucite box. After witnessing that resurrection, I have a hard time understanding why Liverpool supporters are flinging themselves to the metaphorical ground like Luis Suarez in the penalty area.
Sure, the math doesn't look great -- and any stumble Monday at Selhurst Park would more or less hand City the title, rendering ex-Red Jamie Carragher so upset he'd be temporarily coherent -- but if the games were played on paper then Manchester United wouldn't be mired in seventh and Bayern would be facing Chelsea for the Champions League crown on May 24.
You don't have to be the Amazing Kreskin to prognosticate that the Premier League trophy will return to the blue side of Manchester after a year's hiatus during which the ferocious will and master gamesmanship of Sir Alex Ferguson overcame his noisy, financial-doping neighbors in his valedictory season.
Certainly, Saturday's 3-2 comeback victory over Everton at Goodison Park stamped "champion-worthy" on Edin Dzeko's head and added to the putative title-winner's goal-differential advantage. Layer atop the nine-goal edge with seemingly sacrificial home fixtures against weak Aston Villa and an uncaring West Ham and you'd be hard-pressed to find too many people crowing about Liverpool's chances. But as Arsenal proves every year on their way to securing fourth place, stranger soccer things have happened. After all, Chelsea took maximum points from both Liverpool and City in this tightly contested season and will still finish third. Besides, omens matter, and with the new season of "24" debuting Monday night, it cannot be a mere coincidence that Liverpool has gone 24 years without a league title. If Jack Bauer can save the world in 12 episodes, then Brendan Rodgers can deliver six points and a bucketload of goals in two games.
For a while on Saturday, Everton was doing a passable impression of Kiefer Sutherland's alter ego, if only inadvertently. The last thing the Toffees wanted to do was to gift the title to their crosstown rivals, which was what they were in danger of doing if they were to take points from Man City. On the other hand, they weren't about to roll over for the Sky Blues, not in front of their home fans who were still holding onto to a sliver of hope for a Champions League spot should Arsenal gag in their final three games.
This led to a weird atmosphere at my local pub, The Football Factory, where you had Liverpool supporters desperately pulling for their bitter rivals from the other side of Stanley Park and Manchester United supporters rooting unabashedly for their hated neighbors. "It's not like I have any love for City," said David Lewis, who lives in Blackpool but has been supporting United since the 1960s. "But I can live with them rubbing the title in our faces next season, whereas if Liverpool won it, I might have to leave the country." "You can start by leaving the bar," said the long-suffering Liverpool-supporting bartender, Mickey. "After we lost to Chelsea last week, I made my peace with not winning the title. It's been a great ride and we've exceeded everyone's expectations. We're back in the Champions League and I can't wait for next year." That may have been, but 11 minutes in Mickey forgot his equanimity and, for the first time in his life, screamed three words that would have gotten him banished from his family home: "C'mon, you Toffees." Everton's 20-year-old midfielder Ross Barkley had just scored an audacious, perfectly struck, seat-on-the-England-plane-to-Brazil goal, curling the ball from the left edge of the box into the upper right corner past Joe Hart's outstretched fingertips. A place of honor at the Kop for Mr. Barkley was being dusted off just as the ball bulged the net. It was like an adrenaline shot to the heart of both the Goodison and Liverpool faithful.
Unfortunately, the goal also revived Man City and 10 minutes later they were even, Sergio Aguero beating Tim Howard at his near post with a low, hard shot that turned out to be his last meaningful kick of the match -- but thankfully not the season -- as he aggravated a groin injury that forced him to limp off soon thereafter. To lose their best player so early on in a vital match would unnerve most teams -- but not a City side with a billion dollars of talent. Manuel Pellegrini chose not to throw on another striker and instead opted for the Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho to shore up the defense, while pushing Yaya Toure forward to support Dzeko. The big Bosnian may look like he has the turning speed of an oil tanker next to Porsche-like attackers Aguero and David Silva, but brute force has its place on this wonderfully balanced City team.
Dzeko also has a habit of rising to the occasion -- and the ball -- when the stakes are highest. He scored the equalizer in the frantic closing minutes of City's final game of their 2012-13 championship-winning season, their first title in 36 years. And on Saturday he scored on a towering header in the 43rd minute to put City in front and then again shortly after halftime when he bundled home Samir Nasri's low cross.
Seeing Nasri celebrate his assist by leaping into Dzeko's arms not only soured the Stella in my mouth but deflated the atmosphere in the pub. At 3-1, gone were the boisterous "Liver-pool, Liver-pool" chants that echoed hopefully around the bar in the first half. The only voices raised were those of City (and United) fans who took great delight in singing this clever ditty: "Steve Gerrard, Gerrard. He slipped on his f---ing arse. He gave it to Demba Ba. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard." No sooner had their smug laughter subsided than their heads were in their hands. Everton and England full-back Leighton Baines, strangely subdued all game, burst down the left flank and sent over one of his signature seeing-eye crosses that Romelo Lukaku stooped to conquer, his bouncing header pinballing off the woodwork before settling in the net.
"Another pint, please," said Lewis, the traitorous United fan rooting for City. "All of a sudden, my palms are sweaty." You knew things were tense when, with little over 12 minutes to play in regulation time, Dzeko crumpled to the floor after colliding with a gust of fresh air. For a full five minutes he lay face down on the turf while various players, medical staff and referee Lee Probert hovered around him. Finally, he got to his feet, grimacing and holding his shoulder and trudged to the sidelines, but not before Probert had given him a yellow card for his time-wasting antics.
If Jose Mourinho were watching, you have to think that he smiled and added the duplicitous striker to his summer shopping list. (On a related note, did anyone else revel in the delicious irony of The Special One and his band of bus-parkers desperately complaining about Norwich's time-wasting on Sunday? Pot, kettle, etc. Man, I love it when bad things happen to Mourinho, so you can imagine what a good week I had.) Everton did their best to focus on the task at hand but in the end they were unable to breach the City rear guard for the necessary third time, although Hart was called upon to make two brilliant saves to assure his team's full complement of three points and ascent to the top spot.
To City's credit, they displayed an impressive resilience when it mattered, and that bodes well for the final two games. But let's not forget that Pellegrini's men have choked before -- Wigan beat them in the FA Cup for the second consecutive year -- and now they'll have to finish off the league title run without Aguero. Plus, when you have Martin Demichelis and his ridiculous ponytail at the center of the defense, anything can happen. So keep the faith, Liverpool fans. When you've waited 24 years for salvation, what's another week?