As Manchester United players confirmed the club’s 20th league title with a 3-0 triumph over Aston Villa on Monday night and five games still to play, the race at the other end of the table was thrust into the limelight.
For United followers, who were 3-0 up after a mere half an hour, another goal or two might have been icing on the cake. For Wigan supporters, each of Robin Van Persie’s strikes was celebrated as though Emmerson Boyce had donned a red shirt and scored it himself.
If the result mathematically confirmed the title race, then it also brought clarity to its relegation equivalent. While Champions League places are still up for grabs, the battle of the underdogs has always been a fantastic spectacle at the end of each Premier League season — as of today, surely the biggest question left is “will it be Wigan or will it be Villa?”
The triple whammy of a crushing defeat at West Ham and victories for Sunderland and Stoke in tricky fixtures meant Wigan needed things to go to script today if they were to keep themselves within a win of leapfrogging Villa into safety. While it is possible that Stoke, Newcastle, or Sunderland could be hauled back into the fight, their six point advantage plus superior goal difference means it would take a major collapse. In all likelihood, they each need just one more win.
The fixture list has drawn up a remarkable finale. As things stand, Villa are three points ahead, but Wigan have a game in hand and a four-goal advantage. If theoretically, this gap were to remain the same until the last match of the season, a win for Wigan against Villa at the DW would secure safety for the club. Of course, there are five and four league matches for each club respectively between now and that epic scenario. Here’s a quick look at the run-in:
April 27: Wigan vs. Spurs
April 29: Aston Villa vs. Sunderland
May 4: Norwich vs. Aston Villa, West Brom vs. Wigan
May 7: Wigan vs. Swansea
[May 11: Wigan vs. Man City — Cup Final]
May 12: Aston Villa vs. Chelsea
May 14: Arsenal vs. Wigan
May 19: Wigan vs. Aston Villa
On first glance, survival certainly looks achievable. Villa face a resurgent Sunderland side that has kept clean sheets in its last two matches against tricky opposition. They then travel to Norwich, where few teams win but plenty draw, and face Chelsea at home before the showdown with Latics. While they would have been licking their lips at the prospect of Sunderland at home two weeks ago, that outcome is anyone’s guess now. Likewise Norwich, who will be eager to end their involvement in that bottom pack. Meanwhile, Chelsea are fighting to remain in the top four and the riches of the Champions League, a year after winning it.
Wigan, meanwhile, may struggle with fixture congestion and the injuries it brings. Tottenham arrive at a tough time with their confidence high after a remarkable win against Manchester City and key players returning to fitness such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon. But at least Roberto Martinez’s charges will have enjoyed a full week of rest by the time they play, after three games last week. Then come the two key fixtures, fast and furious ahead of the FA Cup final. West Brom away is by no means an easy fixture, but with Steve Clarke’s side safe in mid-table it presents an opportunity. Same with Swansea, at home. The trip to Arsenal is unlikely to yield points, particularly if the Champions League qualification battle remains tight.
Neither club is in an enviable position, but in a league whose victor has been known for some time, the contest between Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa at the other end is as tight as they come.