Wembley, St James’ and San Siro: what a weekend!
MAY 5 — It’s the month of May, so the big games keep on coming: it’s going to be a long and eventful weekend for watchers of European football. And get some sleep while you can, because the most dedicated amongst you are in for a late finish.
Three particularly mouth-watering games stand out from this weekend’s calendar: the FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Liverpool, Manchester City’s trip to Newcastle in the Premier League, and the Italian clasico between Inter and AC Milan at the San Siro.
The fun starts on Saturday evening at Wembley Stadium, where the Blues and the Reds will get underway at the unusual time of 5.15pm (just after midnight in Malaysia) to avoid a clash with the afternoon’s Premier League fixtures.
The strange kick-off time demonstrates how priorities have changed in the last couple of decades — the FA Cup Final used to be the crowning glory, showpiece occasion of the English football season; now it’s an afterthought to the Premier League – but it’s still a game that Chelsea and Liverpool will be desperate to win.
It’s difficult to assess whether these two teams can be happy with their respective seasons. Chelsea, after all, are almost certainly going to finish outside the top four and miss out on Champions’ League qualification for the first time in nearly a decade and felt obliged to sack their manager, Andre Villas Boas, midway through the campaign.
Yet they’ve somehow navigated a passage to the Champions’ League Final and could easily end up the season with two trophies to show for their efforts.
Likewise, Liverpool have underperformed in the Premier League to the extent that Kenny Dalglish’s future at the club has been questioned in some quarters — and for King Kenny to be questioned, you know they must have really been struggling.
But they’ve already won a trophy (albeit the least important of them all, the League Cup) and are now back at Wembley with a chance to lift another piece of the silverware. If that happens, it would be pretty hard to judge their season a failure, however poor their league campaign has been.
And I have a sneaking feeling that Liverpool will come out on top thanks to the recent renaissance in form enjoyed by Luis Suarez. I’m a big admirer of the Uruguayan’s abilities, and truly believe he’s got the potential to become one of the very best strikers in the world (largely based on the way he took apart South America’s best defences during last summer’s victorious Copa America campaign).
Of course, Suarez’s performances for the majority of this season has been way below that level, but remember it was his first full season in the Premier League and his rhythm was severely disrupted by the eight-game ban that followed the infamous Patrice Evra-racism rumpus.
Despite that enforced mid-season break, Suarez is still Liverpool’s top scorer with 17, three of which came in last weekend’s 3-0 victory at Norwich (including an outrageous chip from close to the halfway line). Strikers thrive on confidence, and that only comes from scoring goals: the hat-trick at Carrow Road will have done Suarez the world of good as the Reds prepare for their biggest game of the season.
The following day (8.30pm Malaysian time), Manchester City can effectively clinch the Premier League title by beating Newcastle at St James’ Park (or the Buy Sports Tat Arena, or whatever they’re calling it now).
Although one more game remains, City will surely beat QPR at home on the final day of the season, so this could well be the decider. It will be no easy task. Alan Pardew’s side are enjoying a magnificent run of form — seven wins in their last eight games — that has taken them to the brink of Champions’ League qualification.
And the Geordie boys have got their very own bang in-form striker with a recent wondergoal under his belt: Papiss Cisse, whose second goal in Wednesday’s eyebrow-raising win at Chelsea has to be seen to be believed (YouTube it if you haven’t already).
So the good news for Manchester United fans is that, despite their team’s abject performance at the Etihad Stadium on Monday night, the title race is still very much alive because Newcastle v City could go either way.
And die-hard football fans can finish the weekend with a real treat: Inter v AC Milan late on Sunday night (2.45am kick off Monday morning, Malaysian time).
Any meeting between these two giants of the world game is worth watching, and this one carries particular resonance because AC are just one point behind league leaders Juventus with two games remaining.
The Rossoneri’s under-pressure manager, Massimiliano Alegri, claimed earlier this week that the Italian media has ganged up against his team in recent weeks, and his players will need to show a lot more composure than their boss if their title hopes are to stay alive against their bitter local rivals.
Inter endured a miserable start to the campaign, losing four of their first six games, but they’ve finished strongly and still have an outside chance of finishing in the top three to secure a place in next season’s Champions’ League.
Victory is the only acceptable outcome for both teams so it may well be an attack-minded encounter and, with players of the quality of Diego Milito, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder, Maicon, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Alessandro Nesta on display, the last game of the weekend might prove to be the best of them all.
* The views expressed here are the personal views of the columnist.