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Sport

English Premier League season's ratings

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You never know what happens in football. If that's the hopeful refrain wafting from the Manchester United camp before the weekend's denouement, they can be forgiven. It has been a strange season.

When Chelsea were expected to accelerate, they hit a bump; when they were doomed by a motivation-sapping Champions League capitulation, the Blues rose like a phoenix determined not to wallow in the ashes.

Controversies off the field, and injuries on it have not been able to break their backs, and this is a tribute to their squad strength and harmony.

Although age is not on their side, spirit and verve are amply demonstrated by their whiplash effect on Aston Villa, Stoke City and Sunderland.

Dour Chelsea have lacked romanticism in the past, but impresario Carlo Ancelotti has a willing instrumental ensemble, revelling in possession play.

One significant departure from last season is their acquiring maximum points from the dual fixtures against Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool - they won just one of the corresponding ties during their third-placed finish in 2008-09.

Yet they have faltered in their energetic stride, having lost six times in the most open campaign, in which the Premier League lead has changed more than 20 times. Man United, having lost seven, are aware that no team in a 38-game season, has won from there, but there's always a first. Arsenal may have flirted with the trophy with what looked like a new-found sinewy strength but they limped out of the three-horse race with goalkeeping fumbles, and ultimately remained true to the repeated strain by meekly surrendering to fate.

The pertinent questions at the start of the season, of course, were what would life at Old Trafford be without a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and could the blue half of Manchester - sardonically rechristened as Abu Dhabi United after the sudden shower of wealth - displace one of the 'Big Four' for a Champions League slot.

The Portuguese superstar's coliseum is the Bernabeu now, but his countrymate is slowly emerging from the shadows at the theatre of dreams. Nani has blossomed of late, and may turn out to be a revelation yet if United are patient but the enigmatic Dimitar Berbatov, expected to shoulder the burden, has retreated back into his shell.

One man has stepped forward in more ways than one, and he is, ironically, a Scouser. Wayne Rooney, bullish and unrelenting, has become the heart and soul of the Red Devils, and his bald pate has proven to be anything but barren. But has his breathless willingness to attack and defend, as his season-end injury suggested, proved to be United's undoing on both the domestic and European stages?

The balance may be tilting from the north of England towards London. Liverpool's demise is a sorry tale on its own, while Manchester City, despite luring the Premiership's riches, fell short in the lucrative 'fourth-place playoff' (for the Champions League slot) against Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs have been no slackers in the transfer market, and 'Arry Redknapp's men displayed dogged determination and bench power to wade through the bottomheavy fixture list profitably.

Chelsea and Arsenal succumbed at White Hart Lane in successive games and while Man United proved a bridge too far, Spurs' following trip to Manchester on Wednesday sparked glorious celebrations deservedly. Shopaholics City will head back to the market again, but premium brands are off the shelf. Europa's not enticing enough. Aston Villa, meanwhile, after hobbling out of the Champions League race, will be hoping their American owner loosens his purse soon.

Maybe it's all about the money. With Sunderland promising to spend more, Liverpool may fall further down the pecking order. After losing only twice last season to a second-place high, the once-mighty Reds were hoping to convert their draws into wins but crumbled under the weight of anxiety, underperformance and injuries.

This season of inconsistency has also rankled the top three, and hence, United, who always shift into high gear post-January, harbour hope that Wigan can again prove to be the bogey at Stamford Bridge - remember Emile Heskey's lastgasp hammer blow in April 2008.

But the year comes with a worrying postscript. Debt can mean death, and Portsmouth's punishment for spending beyond their means is a warning flash to all.

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