A season that in all truth did not begin with the usual high expectations for Manchester United due to a number of well known, on and off field events comes to a conclusion at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon with the champions surprisingly still in contention to retain a Premier League trophy which has been securely locked up at the Old Trafford cabinet since 2006.
The equation is simple. United must collect all three points on offer while Chelsea must first score then win. All the odds are obviously with the league leaders, their one point lead can prove to be worth gold. There can never be any guarantees in football however as has been proven countless of times in the past.
United’s task should not be all that difficult to achieve despite the news that winger Antonio Valencia will not be available after suffering an ankle injury against Tottenham a fortnight ago. Leading scorer Wayne Rooney will no doubt miss the supply provided by the Ecuador international which resulted in so many of his goals during the season but there is enough fire power throughout the team to ensure that the desperately needed victory is obtained.
Nani will continue his good run of form and tomorrow is a good chance for him to end the season on high. Rio Ferdinand may features in the starting line-up after playing for half an hour in Tony Carr’s testimonial match at Upton Park replacing Jonny Evans who has sign a four-year contract with the club yesterday.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis looks likely to name the same side for the third time running including the one which suffered that 7-0 drubbing at Chelsea just two games ago. Captain Abdoulaye Faye has recovered from his thigh injury but appears certain to have to settle for a place on the bench. Regular keeper Thomas Sorensen is still recovering from a dislocated elbow giving Asmir Begovic the opportunity to continue in goal.
So after all the toil, twists and turns of 37 matches in which both Chelsea and United have each won 26 of them it comes down to the last game, feasibly even the last kick, before this championship marathon is decided.
Sir Alex Ferguson and his side have been here many times before, Chelsea on the other hand have never experienced this situation, never gone into the final game of the season knowing that the title is theirs to win – or agonisingly throw away. Both their previous wins under Jose Mourinho, were completed with games to spare.
In fact, on the only other occasion when Chelsea went into the final game with a chance of taking the title under Avram Grant in 2008, they could do no better than draw with Bolton. At the end of the day it did not make a difference because United’s victory at Wigan on the same afternoon ensured that the trophy remained at Old Trafford.
For Carlo Ancelotti and his players, it is a scenario they would have certainly accepted back in August, when the ups and downs of the following nine months were entirely unknown. But while the bookies make Ancelotti’s Blues odds on favourites, and rightly so, there will be more than a few nervy types shuffling into Stamford Bridge.
It’s what may, just may, give United the slightest of edges. If that were to happen, it will be a remarkable final twist to the most unconventional of seasons. So who will be celebrating at around six o’clock on Sunday afternoon? The head says that after three seasons, the trophy will return to London while the heart, against all logic, insists that Ferguson and Manchester United will create history by winning the Football League Championship/Premiership four times in a row – and 19 in total.
United (from): Van der Sar, Kuszczak, Foster, Neville, O’Shea, Rafael, De Laet, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evans, Evra, Carrick, Hargreaves, Scholes, Fletcher, Park, Gibson, Obertan, Giggs, Nani, Berbatov, Rooney, Macheda, Diouf.