Heading into the season's final games on Sunday, Manchester City closes in on a title, while Sunderland miraculously dodges relegation.
Belief is one of those of those strange elements in sports, a sort of mysterious particle like the Higgs boson: you know it’s there, that it influences the universe, even if it doesn’t wear a jersey or kick a ball. On Wednesday, belief touched down in Sunderland as a team that was last in the Premiership on Christmas—a relegation black hole from which no team is supposed to escape —confirmed its place in the Premiership next year with a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
Meanwhile, down the road and up the table, Manchester City was demonstrating belief in its own ability, as the weight of its attack became too much to bear for Aston Villa. The Villans collapse started in the 64th minute with Edin Dzeko’s close-in finish, and by the time Yaya Touré stormed the length of the field to score in the third minute of stoppage time the Citizens were already up 3-0. City now needs just a point to clinch the title when they host West Ham on Sunday. Asked if the team was nervous with the score 0-0 at the half, Touré offered an “are you kidding me” response. We knew we were going to score, he said; it was just a matter of time. Belief.
Sunderland went unbeaten over its last five games to pull off its escape, including away wins against Chelsea and Manchester United. But oddly enough it was a disappointing draw against City—a goalkeeping error late in the game denied them a desperately needed win—that stoked its remarkable run. “We were disappointed we didn’t get three points,” explained Sunderland captain John O’Shea after the Aston Villa game. “But we took that belief into the rest of the games.” With a win against Swansea and a West Ham loss this weekend, Sunderland could finish in 12th place—a fairly unbelievable finish a team that spent 17 weeks at the foot of the table. “I believe in miracles now,” said manager Gus Poyet.
The B particle was scarce other parts of the league. Liverpool turned into antimatter against Crystal Palace, a team of no apparent menace, after giving up a goal having run up a 3-0 lead. Liverpool lost faith and just as quickly its lead when a bad deflection gifted Palace an undeserved score. Not so the other two. Palace scored three times in 10 or so minutes to finish whatever title hopes the ‘Pool had left. It’s a good thing Selhurst Park isn’t close to the Thames, for Liverpool’s sake. And having been dismantled by Athletico Madrid in the Champions League, a shattered Chelsea—a team loaded with non-believers— managed a 0-0 draw with Norwich, the only point the Canaries would earn in their last six games. Norwich fired its manager, Chris Hughton, in early April and replaced him with youth team manager Neil Adams, described AS a more progressive coach. Norwich progressed straight to relegation.
While the supremely confident Man City is running at West Ham for the title this weekend, Norwich will finish its season against Arsenal. The Gunners have held steadfastly to their manager Arsene Wenger and to their system in a season in which boatloads of critics have been howling for changes. Arsenal will finish in fourth place, have a place in Europe’s Champions League and a chance for some glory in the FA Cup final on May 18. You can call Sunderland lucky, you could even say the Black Cats defied belief; but Arsenal defined it.