Fergie's mind games key?
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The English Premiership title race suddenly being thrown wide open again with three rounds to play is an unexpected fillip for neutrals.
Of course it also heralds the start of a three-week white-knuckle ride for the respective global fans of log-leaders Chelsea and defending champions Manchester United, even if the latter’s are understandably buzzing again after the Red Devils made up three points on the London club at the weekend to breathe fresh life into the race.
Whether or not it is the case, United’s devotees would love to believe it was the beginning of a crucial momentum shift, a cranking up of the heat.
From a Chelsea point of view, the solace remains a one-point lead – and three-goal superiority into the bargain -- that could yet prove critical and ought to keep the Blues’ noses a fraction ahead with the bookies for the moment.
Rival managers Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti are seasoned footballing sages boasting a combined age of 118, with the 68-year-old United mastermind especially equipped in the “been there, done that” department as the business end of the duel looms.
Indeed, his psychological sparring under such circumstances is a known fancied device.
The old fox has already indulged in the tactic of late, effectively firing up Bolton last week by suggesting Chelsea’s home fixture with the Trotters was an “easy” one for them: the visitors duly got right up for the contest and were a little unlucky to succumb 1-0.
And nobody needs reminding how he spooked Kevin Keegan - the poor man seemed to get his first coating of grey hairs all at once - back in 1995/96, when Newcastle United had boasted a 12-point lead in the title race in January and yet were amazingly hauled in as the Red Devils romped to the silverware by a four-point margin.
That is a landmark event Manchester United remain able and willing to dine out on to this day, and Fergie is sure to remind his class of 2009/10 how the club once kept their composure in circumstances when the dice seemed way more firmly loaded against them.
Mind you, Ferguson may not find Ancelotti himself quite so easy to dismantle emotionally: the Italian, certainly publicly, sometimes oozes a rare unflappability and ability to keep his emotions well under wraps in the fluctuating match-day heat of the dugout.
A glance at each team’s remaining assignments is quite obviously pertinent, if not massively educative in plotting the fate of the title because neither team can truly say they sport the easier or more difficult run-in.
Both have two home assignments and just one away, for starters. Plus both of them will entertain Stoke City, firmly mid-table and unlikely to shift too much in either direction: never assume anything in the Premiership, but let us, er, postulate that the Potters will be beaten in each instance.
For the record, Chelsea won 2-1 at the Victoria Ground earlier in the season and United 2-0, while in last season’s corresponding home matches against Stoke, United romped to a 5-0 outcome (the Potters’ worst reverse of the campaign) and Chelsea took a tighter affair 2-1.
Both United and Chelsea have reasonably clear-cut “most difficult” games on paper: the former having to play admirably in-form Tottenham (conquerors of Arsenal and Chelsea in the space of only four days) at Old Trafford this Saturday, while the Blues are probably hampered by tackling Liverpool in enemy habitat at Anfield on May 2.
The Reds were a bogey side for Chelsea last season, winning 2-0 at home and 1-0 in London, although in this winter’s first-round encounter Chelsea turned the tables with a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge.
Ferguson, of course, will be grumpy over the news that ‘Pool’s leading striker (by a country mile) Fernando Torres is out for the season after going under the knife for a knee injury on Sunday – that strongly lessens the likelihood of the Blues’ defence being seriously stretched.
Still, in assessing each title-chasing team’s other remaining assignment, maybe the delicate “balance” is again restored a little by the fact that United must play Sunderland away – a much-improved outfit in late-season who have pulled clear of relegation peril and nosing ever upward to greater respectability in log terms.
Chelsea’s other challenge will be Wigan Athletic, who they will be heavily tipped to beat at the “Bridge” on the last day of the season.
The Blues will want their guests to be free of relegation issues by then, and that ought to be the case when you examine the current table. (Safety for Wigan, naturally, might be fancied to take a wee bit of urgency and commitment from their play, although a curve-ball factor is this season’s earlier result between the two – a shock Wigan 3 Chelsea 1, back on September 26.)
So that’s a bit of a backdrop to the high-stakes scramble.
I am tempted to think that Ferguson’s devilish psycho-barbs and richer managerial experience of the end-of-season climate may be worth half a point, if you like, in this fascinating run-in … but also that Chelsea’s full-point lead in more relevant, table terms, will have stayed the key determinant when the dust settles on May 9’s closing Premiership programme.
There is, after all, a slightly more angst-riddled thought in Manchester United minds: whatever they do themselves, Chelsea have to drop points if United are to scuttle past them …
Remaining fixtures and kick-off times (in SA terms):
Sunday April 25, 17:00: Stoke City (h)
Sunday May 2, 14:30: Liverpool (a)
Sunday May 9, 17:00: Wigan Athletic (h)
Saturday April 24, 13:45: Tottenham Hotspur (h)
Sunday May 2, 17:00: Sunderland (a)
Sunday May 9, 17:00: Stoke City (h)