One defeat from disaster

Chelsea's Demba Ba reacts after a missed opportunity during their English Premier League soccer match against Liverpool at Anfield.

Liverpool can handle the disappointment. They've had 24 years of practice. But the hope is killing them.

Like Manchester City and Chelsea, the Reds are still a dream away from the title, but a weekend away from despair.

The English Premier League has reached the final week of the season with its top-three places still to be finalised, but surely something has got to give this weekend.

There is sense of finality now. All three clubs are throwing the dice and passing "go" for the last time.

There are no get-out-of-jail cards left. The game is ending. For markedly different reasons, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea are perhaps one defeat from disaster.

Here's why:

LIVERPOOL

Few remember the actual game from the 2006 World Cup final.

But no one will ever forget Zinedine Zidane's headbutt. Sporting contests are often defined by moments, rather than milestones.

Steven Gerrard's slip can either be a misplaced pass to giggle over at after-dinner speeches or a monkey on his back for the rest of his life.

The heartbreaking narrative of both club and captain will mercilessly intertwine. An otherwise outstanding campaign will be forever asterisked by one unfortunate error.

Luis Suarez's Player-of-the-Year exploits and the Reds' attacking verve will be shoved to the background. A lapse of concentration will take centrestage.

This will be forever remembered as the season that might have been.

Brendan Rodgers has worked wonders since August and is the major contender for Manager of the Year accolades. The other contender threatens to knock him out of his stride at the penultimate hurdle.

Tony Pulis' Crystal Palace suddenly represent so much more than obdurate opponents and the second fleet of bus drivers to park up outside the penalty box in as many weeks.

ASSAULT ON PALACE

If the emotionally brittle Reds are unceremoniously tossed aside, then Rodgers' fledgling dynasty could be put down at the Palace.

Suarez already has his redemptive, personal silverware, even if he misses out on the title.

The Player of the Year prize may not only be a soothing tonic, but a springboard to Spain.

When Real Madrid contest the all-Spanish Champions League final, Suarez could view the space between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo as vacant land well worth leasing.

His current landlord may be persuasive but, in the end, it's always location, location, location.

Besides, if his freakish, record-breaking scoring momentum cannot sustain the title drive, then he may feel he can take the Reds no further.

The notoriously impatient money men at City and Chelsea are not renowned for their tolerance when it comes to licking wounds.

Heads are removed, cheques are signed and titles are swiftly restored to the burgeoning trophy cabinet.

The Reds will return to the role of also-rans once more; chasing the cast-offs left behind in the transfer window.

So Liverpool's trip to Palace could mark the beginnings of a new regal era for the House of Rodgers.

Or the guillotine will finally fall on the most unexpected of dreams.

CHELSEA

The Blues are more unpredictable than their manager's shaving habits.

They were expected to beat Crystal Palace. They were dismissed as cannon fodder for Anfield's marksmen. They were destined to prevail after taking a home lead against Atletico Madrid.

Their efforts remain puzzlingly schizophrenic, largely because both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde occupy the hot seat.

In the space of a week, Jose Mourinho finds himself at a genuine career crossroads. He is both a fossil and a fortune-teller; a pedant and a pragmatist; a tactical evolutionary and a tired old man.

What is beyond doubt is that the game is on the cusp of another cyclical change.

Barcelona's pioneering possession tiki-taka is being slowly bypassed by counter-attacking opponents happy to play for long periods without the ball.

Whether that's a positive (Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid against Bayern Munich) or a negative (Mourinho's Chelsea against Liverpool) depends on application or your point of view.

Mostly, the strategy depends on its success rate. And Mourinho could end the season with nothing.

Roman Abramovich bought the club to dominate European football, preferably in a fashion displayed by Manchester United and Real Madrid on that famous night back in 2003 when the Russian fell in love with the game.

The Blues are achieving neither. Even Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez took care of the silverware bit.

There was talk of a double a week ago. Now Chelsea must strive to avoid a third successive home defeat.

NORWICH BUOYED

Norwich City are not seriously expected to prolong that unwanted streak, but will be buoyed by the prospect of facing weary men who are physically and emotionally spent.

The Canaries suddenly have everything to play for against a team whose season was killed off by an Atletico side exhibiting the kind of attacking adventure that Abramovich hasn't been able to purchase despite spending more than £2 billion (S$4.2m).

After this weekend, Mourinho could be heading into unchartered territory; a second consecutive season without a trophy.

By his own exacting standards, that would make him The Failed One.

MANCHESTER CITY

With mischievous timing, the financial figures for 2012-13 for the 20 EPL clubs have been released as City prepare for the toughest of their final three fixtures.

Everton at Goodison Park tomorrow morning (Singapore time) offer the biggest obstacle in the club's title quest. But those damning figures are a veritable roadblock for Manuel Pellegrini.

Last year, the bottomless money well from Abu Dhabi gushed wages like an uncontrollable geyser. Topping the wage bill charts yet again, City coughed up a comically grotesque £233 million in a single season (up from £202m in 2012 and expected to rise again this year).

The published annual reports might as well be the old dreaded vote of confidence for Pellegrini. Those figures are a ticking time-bomb; a countdown until Pellegrini gets the sack.

Unless City turn over the Toffees and take back what the oligarchs of the Abu Dhabi United Group now consider to be their (bought) birthright.

Any outcome other than an open-top bus parade past the Manchester Town Hall is a failure, perhaps a qualified failure thanks to the League Cup bauble gathering dust somewhere at the Etihad, but a failure nonetheless.

Such an unforgiving yardstick is set not by the fans, but by the owners.

They move the goalposts back every time a coterie of agents turn up in pre-season with their latest designer brands to flog.

Pellegrini has already spent £84m on Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic and Martin Demichelis. Only Fernandinho has been an undoubted success.

REDS TURN THEM RED

Ironically, Liverpool's romantic run has both helped and hindered Pellegrini's cause. The Reds' unexpected gallop for glory, with a squad on almost half the wages, has been a source of embarrassment.

But the focus on Anfield drew attention away from City's glaring inconsistencies, the mercurial form of their strikers and the gaping hole left behind by Gareth Barry.

Fortunately for City, the midfielder's loan deal denies him the chance to further ridicule his full-time employers.

But Pellegrini must be wary of Barry's teammates doing the job on his behalf. Once bitten on Merseyside, he's twice as likely to get sacked if it happens again.

This article was published on May 3 in The New Paper.

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