Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Man U hoping rival City falls flat

Red Devils would take EPL title any way they can get it

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On May 14, 1995 Manchester United drew 1-1 at West Ham and conceded the Premier League title to Blackburn Rovers, who lost 2-1 to Liverpool the same day. The season had come down to the final round of matches, and had the Red Devils managed to find a winner they would have been crowned champions.

Not that they would have deserved it. But for a wobble towards the end of the season, Blackburn -- financed by wealthy Lancashire industrialist Jack Walker -- had spent nearly the entire campaign atop the table and had played the most exciting football in the division.

Forwards Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, each of whom had been acquired for a record English transfer fee, combined to score 51 goals over the course of the schedule and a solid spine that included Tim Flowers, Graeme Le Saux and Tim Sherwood ensured the trophy was Blackburn's to lose until the final day.

They quite nearly lost it.

There are some fascinating similarities between the 1994-95 English Premier League season and the current one, which will come to its conclusion on Sunday.

Seventeen years ago, soccer's darker side seemed to find its way onto the back pages a little too often thanks to Eric Cantona's assault on a Crystal Palace supporter and Denis Wise's arrest for assault and criminal damage.

By comparison, the past few months have seen Mario Balotelli nearly blow up his house in a botched pyrotechnics display and Luis Suarez handed a lengthy ban for racist abuse.

On the business side of things Blackburn used an infusion of money in the early 1990s to beat a path to the top of the English game just three years after earning promotion from the second division. The 1995 championship was their first in 81 years, but by 1999 the bubble had burst and the club was relegated once more.

Manchester City, somewhat similarly, find themselves in first place with a single match to play in the current campaign following a three-year spending spree of nearly £300 million.

It was only 10 years ago that the club was battling for promotion from the second tier of English soccer, but massive investment by successive owners looks to have turned City into a long-term contender.

In this they deviate from the Blackburn template. Whereas Blackburn are a comparatively small club that suffered another relegation earlier this week, City have broad support, a modern stadium and a world-class youth academy. So long as the big money is backing them, City will compete for major honours.

A final comparison.

On the last matchday of the 1994-95 schedule Manchester United found themselves trailing Blackburn by two points. Second-best for much of the season, they would have nevertheless won the championship had they managed to win at Upton Park, given Rovers' surprising defeat at Anfield.

Coming into Sunday's round of fixtures United again find themselves trailing the title favourites with a single match to play.

A brief March slump notwithstanding, City has been the best team in the land this season and quite rightfully welcome Queens Park Rangers to Eastlands knowing victory will deliver a first championship in 44 years. They have one hand on the trophy. It's theirs to lose.

But they haven't won it yet. QPR arrive in the Northwest in desperate need of at least a point to ensure Premier League survival. A loss to City, combined with a Bolton win at Stoke, would see Rangers relegated to the Championship after just one season in the top flight. They'll be no pushovers, and manager Mark Hughes will no doubt be looking to pull one over his former City bosses, who sacked him in 2009.

Of course, United would still need to win at Sunderland in order to retain the title. A loss at the Stadium of Light would see the trophy presented at Eastlands, even if City failed to get a result against QPR.

United have been in this position before -- trying to back their way into a championship. They came up short the first time of asking and will be doing everything in their power to ensure it doesn't happen again on Sunday.

They don't control their own destiny at this point, but they didn't 17 years ago, either. If City are to experience one more wobble, it's vital United get the job done in their own match. In this instance, they'll be hoping history doesn't quite repeat itself.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 C9

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