By Joe Behan
Chelsea and Leeds United finally fell out of the race for Champions League 2003, while Newcastle United joined the big boys of European football.
In a disappointing weekend at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United beat Chelsea 3-nil, while Leeds, playeing at Elland Road, lost 1-nil to Fulham. Alan Shearer made it 3-nil for Newcastle against Charlton, scoring it his 200th goal as United go forth to secure their C.L. future.
For the top three, it’s a matter of who will get C.L. automatic qualification. On the Saturday, Liverpool went top when Michael Owen’s brace buried Derby County. Manchester United also kept the table-toppers honest with that defeat over Chelsea as Paul Scholes joined Rudd Van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskj’r on the scoresheet.
The pressure was on Arsenal, now back in third place, going into Sunday’s game against struggling Ipswich Town. With Ipswich desperately needing the points to avoid relegation, the Town proved to be a tricky game for the Gunners. Arsenal couldn’t put the ball away, while Ipswich also missed opportunities. Eventually, in the 68th minute, Fredrik Ljungberg turned the ball into the Ipswich net, bringing Arsene Wenger to his knees. Ljungberg put Arsenal firmly back on top of the premier 10 minutes later, but it was the knee-wobbling Wegner that said it all.
Arsenal support will only be satisfied with winning the title to make up for their C.L. exit. The Highbury faithful were disgruntled at missing out on the C.L. semifinals, so the pressure is on to win the double. With their date booked against Chelsea in the F.A. Cup and only a few wins away from the title, Wenger faces the biggest demands in his career so far in the EPL.
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The knees wobbled and down he fell to the ground with relief when Arsenal scored their opener against Ipswich. Missing chance after chance and hitting the woodwork was too much for the French tactician to handle. Mind you, he didn’t stay on his knees for too long, as there is still a long way to go. The pressure is doubled for Wenger and Arsenal to send their fans home this season with the league and the cup.
Breathing down Arsenal’s neck is Liverpool and Man. United. The most they can hope for is a slip-up by the Gunners. Liverpool needs the automatic spot more so than United. Of course, Ferguson is still pushed for a top-two spot, but he will accept having to go through the C.L. preliminary rounds next year. United’s current run in the C.L. allows breathing space for Old Trafford and the fans to come third in the league. If United win the C.L., it will overshadow Arsenal’s double, but Liverpool and Chelsea will keep the Gunners on their toes to the bitter end. So while the top four are all on their way to C.L. and Chelsea have a chance to make up in the F.A. Cup, it is Leeds that get the leftovers for Europe.
Keeping pace with leaders
West Ham United lead the pack behind the top six. Joe Cole is on the verge of bringing back to West Ham the tradition of the beautiful game. Glen Hoddle did manage to steady Spurs at White Heart Lane, but Tottenham absolutely need more players to make a strong C.L. bid next year. Middlesbrough got their acts together and came up with some great results to stay midtable. Steve McClaren will now add some fresh legs to Boro and confidence may carry into next year’s campaign with Boro remaining in midtable the goal. Aston Villa has fallen down a few notches this season since Graham Taylor took over, but next season will tell the Villa tale.
Leading the bottom half of the table are Everton and Southampton, who have looked impressive. Since Walter Smith’s departure, Everton have stepped up a gear as expected. Gordon Strachan has done the same with Southampton, who looks a much fitter side. Both these teams have indeed relied on heart and guts and that has produced some good football, but who they will buy next year is what matters for these clubs.
Bolton and Blackburn Rovers have turned things around in the later stages of the season and look like up-and-coming sides for next year. While Blackburn are still not safe, they are playing some silky stuff with Damien Duff becoming something special to watch for in the World Cup.
Charlton are still plugging away and look stronger than Sunderland and Fulham. This bottom group is very much middle of the road football when compared to the top six. There will come a surprise out of this group for next season, but it will not last. The evidence is for all to see as Ipswich is on the brink of relegation after an unbelievable return to the premier. The flying start has perhaps gone against George Burley and his Blues. There is a lot to be said for being content like Charlton in the middle of the table, or, simply put, premier status.
Derby who have managed to avoid the drop for the last few years, are gone down but are playing some really nice football. There will be a clearance sale at the County and expect to see some quality football and a quick return for Derby to the premier. It’s almost incredible to see Leicester City on the bottom of the table. The club has fallen apart, proving that nowadays the managers are just as big as the clubs, at least it is for ex-manager Martin O’Neill and Filbert Street.
Andy Cole was back on the score sheet for Rovers with a 3-1 win over Boro. Duff tormented defenders and his goal-making stole the show, along with some tantalizing runs. With Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Thierry Henry failing to hit the target over the weekend, Van Nistelrooy is keeping the strikers honest for top goal scorer. West Brom are back in the premier after 16 years. Goals from Darren Moore and Bob Taylor gave Albion a deserved 2-0 win over Crystal Palace.