By Mike Collett
The most unpredictable Premier League title race for years could still offer up another twist or turn before it is decided on Sunday but in a season of shocks, none would be as monumental as table-topping Liverpool going on to be crowned champions.
Liverpool may be the league leaders with just a home match against Newcastle to play but for once the old cliché that ‘the table never lies’ is wrong, as Manchester City are just a point adrift with two relatively routine home fixtures remaining.
Even though City still need four points to guarantee a second title in three years, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers conceded defeat in the race on Monday after his side blew a three-goal cushion with 11 minutes to play in a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace.
The lead at the top of the table has changed hands 24 times this season and it is likely to do so for the 25th and final time on Wednesday when City meet Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium with the title now firmly in their grasp.
At various times this season, if only for one day in Tottenham Hotspur’s case and two in Manchester United’s, City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have also topped the table, with the top spot occupied by three different teams on some weekends.
Champions United led for two days in the first week but David Moyes’ troubled reign soon unravelled and they dropped out of the race early to spend the season among the also-rans.
Spurs had one day on top in September but fell off the pace and jettisoned coach Andre Villas-Boas. Arsenal had three months in pole position, but flattered to deceive and could not cope with a series of injuries to key players.
Two points behind Liverpool and still mathematically in the title race, Chelsea have dropped 15 points since the end of January, including defeats to Aston Villa, Sunderland and Crystal Palace to leave City firmly in control.
City were never completely out of contention but appeared to suffer near-fatal blows when they lost at home to Chelsea at the beginning of February and at Liverpool last month.
However, the Premier League’s biggest spenders always had goals to spare and matches in hand to revive their challenge as soon as their rivals slipped.
While Liverpool are currently top on 81 points ahead of their season finale at Anfield, City also have the added insurance of a far superior goal difference.
If City beat Aston Villa on Wednesday they will only need to take a point from their final game against West Ham United to clinch a fourth English title.
It is almost inconceivable they will self-destruct as Liverpool did on Monday, a capitulation which left talismanic striker Luis Suarez in tears and his team-mates slumped on the pitch, staring into the middle distance after the final whistle.
Neither the players, nor most of the 25,000 fans at Selhurst Park could believe what they had witnessed – a kind of mirror image of Liverpool’s famous comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul.
Then they trailed 3-0 at half-time but inspired by skipper Steven Gerrard, scored three goals “in six minutes of madness” as then-Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti famously described it, to level the game at 3-3 before winning the penalty shootout to become European champions for the fifth time.
On Monday, they led Palace 3-0 with 11 minutes to play following goals from Joe Allen, Daniel Sturridge and Suarez.
Selhurst Park is no place for the faint-hearted, though, where the club’s trained eagle mascot flies from one end of the pitch to the other before kick-off.
Palace fans have forged a great reputation as the noisiest, most boisterous and among the most passionate in any of England’s top four divisions, and even when their team was trailing 3-0 they never stopped cheering them on.
Suddenly Palace responded with a deflected strike from Damien Delaney and two more from substitute Dwight Gayle as the shaky Liverpool defence caved in.
Palace have rained on Liverpool’s parade once before, in an FA Cup semi-final in 1990, when after losing twice to the Reds in the league campaign, one of them 9-0, they secured a famous 4-3 win after extra-time with Alan Pardew scoring the winner.
Pardew, now the Newcastle United manager, will lead his team out against Liverpool on Sunday and while the home side are expected to get the upper hand over him this time, it will almost certainly be too little, too late.