- Premier League Spotlight
Liverpool should remember just how far they've come
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's topflight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Can Liverpool recover from Monday's heartbreak?
From the overzealous and premature jubilation after the final whistle of their win over Manchester City to the hasty tears that followed two points dropped at Crystal Palace on Monday, emotions have been high among the Liverpool players in recent weeks amid the unfamiliarity of being in a title race. The 3-3 capitulation at Selhurst Park can be dissected into several tiny pieces, but it is up to manager Brendan Rodgers to ensure he restores the health of his squad on a diet of the overarching positives rather than the raw negatives.
In the cave of despair is a three-goal lead lost against a team that has struggled to score goals. It was a failure to see out a match they had control of but knew not how to cope with. If there is a concept of wanting something too much, it may have manifested itself among the Liverpool players, for they allowed the gravity of the situation to overwhelm their focus.
The result had actually returned the Reds to the top of the table with one match to play - until Manchester City saw off Aston Villa. Liverpool have 20 more points than they amassed last campaign. It is this progress that Rodgers, his personnel and the fans should take comfort in if City, as expected, hold their nerve. Because while this may feel like an opportunity missed, it was an opportunity manufactured only because the Reds made it so. If Rodgers can strike a better balance between defence and attack against Newcastle United and in the seasons beyond, then Liverpool fans had better brace for further seasons of title tension.
Is the Man United squad set for surgery?
A trip to Southampton is the final chance to impress the next manager for some of Manchester United's players, amid talk of a clear-out in the summer. Among the many reasons for their dreadful season (by the club's standards), the squad's dearth of talent at the level required has been grossly exposed in the absence of miracle-worker Sir Alex Ferguson. Sacked boss David Moyes made mistakes during his tenure, but to unload all blame at his door would be unfair; the workman had reason to blame his tools.
Twelve months since Ferguson addressed Old Trafford, the task bestowed upon the latest leader looks an even taller order. Drastic surgery is thought to be required to get United back on track for 2014-15. Nemanja Vidic's departure to Inter Milan has already been confirmed, and it has been speculated the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra could follow the experienced centre-back out of Old Trafford.
After youth impressed on Tuesday night against Hull, those United players neither aged nor emerging have a final audition this weekend.
Can Mourinho find the right balance?
Let us not be distracted by little horses: Jose Mourinho's first season back at Chelsea has been a failure. Not lifting a major trophy, like last season, is below his standards - and Stamford Bridge bosses have been dismissed for less. Mourinho has been labelled a tactical mastermind for his excellent record against the "better" sides, but losing against teams such as Sunderland and Aston Villa conflicts with that moniker. The title was lost where it should not have been.
Sunday's dull-as-dishwater draw with Norwich underlined Chelsea's troubles. Mourinho has organised a mean defence - the best in the division with just 26 concessions - protected by a disciplined midfield, but, juxtaposing Liverpool, the balance hasn't been quite right at times. Against teams doing what Chelsea themselves do well, the Blues have come unstuck, unable to break through the gates.
Mourinho's main gripe has been about a lack of an outstanding centre forward, which is correct, but beyond that someone who can pick a lock - such as the sold Juan Mata - would have made the difference. They conclude their campaign at leaky Cardiff, but a big summer awaits.
Will Tottenham give their fans something to smile about?
Tottenham's lap of honour in their final match of the season against Aston Villa at White Hart Lane on Sunday could be an ugly thing. For months there has been a yearning among a section of the Spurs faithful for the 2013-14 campaign to conclude so a line can be drawn under the whole affair and the work that needs doing can be started. Indeed, the hot air balloon of optimism that greeted their seven summer signings has emphatically fallen from the sky, with only Christian Eriksen emerging from the wreckage with any real credit.
Spurs are another team expected to have a new manager come the start of the next campaign, even though Tim Sherwood signed an 18-month contract in December. Sherwood has spoken an awful lot of words since his appointment, some of which have made sense, but others have been the catalyst for an inevitable departure. Sherwood's demand for "more gut" in March was valid, and a prerequisite for any paying fan. So when Paulinho and Emmanuel Adebayor demonstrated cowardice in the wall as West Ham beat Spurs for a third time this campaign, disenchantment was merely deep-rooted in North London.
Hooray for Hull, and their manager Bruce
It has been one helluva, and forgive the use of a cliche, "journey" for Hull City - from the depths of the Football League to European football next season. The latter was confirmed in conflicting circumstances as, despite losing 3-1 to an out-of-form Aston Villa, Everton's defeat to Manchester City meant Champions League football for Hull's FA Cup final opponent Arsenal and thus Europa League qualification for the Tigers.
Owner Assem Allam has wanted, via his desire for a name change, for Hull to be more marketable, and - by Jove - Steve Bruce has gone and done it in a way that doesn't leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Their final game before a second trip to Wembley this season is at home to Everton.