As Americans, we are constantly stressing about the parity of our various sports leagues. We ask ourselves if they're fair, if everyone can compete, if large markets dominate small ones for players and revenue. Our leagues are so fundamentally concerned with these questions because there's only one goal: to be the best. You hear these rehearsed slogans from coaches, players and GMs year after year: Super Bowl or bust, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, Just Win Baby™, a ring or nothing, etc. This is a distinctly American problem because our leagues don't have promotion and relegation or parallel competitions, giving teams multiple routes to success.
On that note, the English Premier League is winding down, which means it's just getting interesting. With three games remaining for most teams, everyone has a pretty clear idea what they're playing for. Almost everyone still has a very good reason to play (mostly reducible to "money") despite few having a chance for the title. Here's a rundown of the stakes involved, what the picture looks like at the moment and the key matches left to be played.
THE TITLE RACE
The favorite: Liverpool (80 points)
Contenders: Chelsea (75 points), Manchester City (74 points + a game in hand)
Liverpool sure made a lot of people look stupid. Despite being nobody's preseason pick, here they sit, clear favorites to hoist the trophy. They've easily been the best team over the second half of the season, taking 44 of their last 48 possible points. They've gotten this far on the backs of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez (who really ought to be mentioned in the same breath as Messi and Ronaldo by now as the most impactful scorers in soccer). With Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho providing creativity and added midfield stability from Token White Dudes Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Jon Flanagan, their offense has been nearly impossible to stop. Week in and out, Liverpool has been the most entertaining team, playing fast-paced soccer resulting in a plethora of sumptuous goals. At this point, almost no one would begrudge them and manager Brendan Rodgers of the title.
Due to their game in hand, Manchester City is the only team with a realistic chance of taking the title from Suarez's permanently bandaged hand. City had a Liverpool-esque run in the middle of the season, taking 34 of 36 possible points in a 12 match stretch, but their form has dipped of late, going 2-2-1 in the last five.
Chelsea is still technically in contention, although manager Jose Mourinho has received permission from the club to, well, tank against Liverpool this weekend, which would all but hand them the title. Chelsea is done if they lose to Liverpool, which Mourinho seems ready to capitulate to pursue Champions League prize money/glory.
If Liverpool wins out, their first league title since 1990 is theirs. In the event Mourinho fields an actual team instead of 11 scarecrows, Chelsea would be by far their most threatening fixture. Of their other two remaining games, one is against Newcastle, who have fallen off a very steep cliff in the second half of the season, losing 13 of last 18 games including their last five. But the other matchup is Crystal Palace, who also play Manchester City, and thus feature prominently in the title race.
Palace has had a fascinating season themselves, losing nine of their first 10 before manager Ian Holloway "stepped down," replaced ultimately by Tony Pulis, who must be soaked from the shower of deserving praise he's received as of late. Under Pulis, Palace have gained 39 points in 24 matches, which would put them on a 62-point pace over an entire season, comparable to Tottenham and Manchester United's 2013-14 campaign. During their current five-game winning streak, Pulis's squad has beaten Chelsea and Everton, two very impressive wins. Despite not coaching anyone at the beginning of the season, Tony Pulis finds himself the key to the title race.
The race, in brief: If Liverpool wins out, they win the title. A Liverpool loss gives Manchester City a chance. Chelsea is only in the race if they beat Liverpool on Sunday. Both City and Chelsea have to win out to have a realistic chance at the title.
Key matches (all times Eastern):
Sunday, April 27: Liverpool v. Chelsea (9:05 a.m), Crystal Palace v. Manchester City (11:10 a.m.)
Saturday, May 3: Everton v. Manchester City (12:30 p.m.)
Monday, May 5: Crystal Palace v. Liverpool (3 p.m.)
Sunday, May 11: Manchester City v. West Ham (10 a.m.), Liverpool v. Newcastle (10 a.m.) and possibly Cardiff City v. Chelsea (10 a.m.)
THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
The Favorite: Arsenal (70 points)
Contenders: Everton (69 points)
Barring a truly epic collapse by Chelsea or City, the three teams in the title race also have their Champions League slots wrapped up. The fourth and final spot is a battle to the death between Arsenal and Everton. **breaks pool cue in half**
Each team has three league matches remaining, although Arsenal have the all-important FA Cup final against Hull where Arsene Wenger will hope to end their nearly nine-year trophy drought. Arsenal's remaining schedule couldn't be easier short scheduling your local AYSO travel team, with dreadfully out of form Newcastle, West Brom (16th place) and Norwich (17th) on the docket. Considering Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil have returned from injury, Arsenal have no excuse not to win out and take fourth place.
Meanwhile, Everton have the aforementioned meeting with Manchester City looming, which could be the nail in their Champions League coffin. The other two games aren't difficult (Southampton and Hull), but realistically, Everton needs at least a point against City and an Arsenal slip-up, which is of course quite possible, since it's Arsenal.
The race, in brief: With the easiest of schedules and a point in hand, it's Arsenal's to lose.
Key matches: Keep an eye on all of Arsenal's games (Monday, April 28 at 3 p.m.; Sunday, May 4 at 8:30 a.m.; Sunday, May 11 at 10 a.m.), but the real key is the Everton v. Manchester City match (Saturday, May 3, 12:30 p.m.).
The "favorites": Fulham (30 points), Cardiff City (30 points), Norwich City (32 points)
"Contenders": Sunderland (29 points + game in hand)
Of the three races, the relegation battle is probably the most exciting. Not only are the stakes highest (NBC's rather threatening tagline is "would you fight harder for a trophy or your life?"), it's also the closest. Although Norwich sits two points clear of the relegation zone, they have easily the toughest schedule (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal) and could very well finish the season with their current points total. Although Chelsea seems willing to tank against Liverpool, they can't check out for the rest of the season, as they still haven't guaranteed themselves a Champions League spot. In either event, Chelsea's B squad could probably make short work of Norwich. Manchester United is in turmoil, but one would think the players would be eager to demonstrate they weren't the problem (even though Norwich is hardly the team against whom to state your case).
More to the point, Norwich hasn't beaten a top club all year, with their best win against a reeling Tottenham in February. Recently, they've lost four straight, including a critical match a few weeks ago against Fulham, another potential relegation club. Even more damaging to Norwich's EPL hopes is that Sunderland and Cardiff play each other this weekend. Assuming that match doesn't end in a draw, the winner will crawl out of the relegation zone, likely to be replaced by Norwich.
As to who will escape relegation, Sunderland are in the best form, having beaten Chelsea last week and drawing to Manchester City the week prior, plus they have a game in hand. Cardiff must play Chelsea the final game of the season, but they also get to face off against Newcastle, perhaps the worst team in the league at the moment. Fulham have three mid-table opponents in Hull, Stoke and Crystal Palace (although, as we've seen, Crystal Palace are playing better than a mid-table side lately), all of which have the potential but not expectation for points. Really, any combination of these four teams could very well be relegated.
The race, in brief: Somebody's gotta win something.
Key matches: The Big One: Sunday, April 27: Sunderland v. Cardiff City (7 a.m.), but any game with these four teams is key at this stage.
If you can only sit down for one time slot for the rest of the season, set aside Sunday, May 11th at 10 a.m., the final matches of the season. Every game is played simultaneously, so results of one match doesn't influence others, and NBC will be broadcasting every single one on their various TV networks. (Oxygen viewers will be so confused.) If nothing else, park yourself in front of the TV for those two hours and watch the entire season crystalize in front of you.