Ferguson's Man Utd farewell overshadows the FA Cup final
Weekend preview: all eyes will be on Old Trafford on Sunday rather than Wembley a day earlier
COULD this weekend's FA Cup final be the least-anticipated ever? The retirement of Alex Ferguson and the ongoing battles to qualify for the Champions League and escape relegation mean that most people's attentions will be focused on the league this weekend.
The Wembley showpiece is one of only two games taking place on Saturday, and will be shown on terrestrial TV, so it should attract a decent audience. But the only people with anything more than a passing interest in the outcome will be fans of the two clubs involved, Manchester City and Wigan.
Even then, there’s not as much riding on the outcome as usual. Manchester City have already qualified for the Champions League and that means, win or lose, Wigan will be playing in the Europa League next season.
Wigan fans could also be forgiven for having more of an interest in their league position than their cup exploits. Roberto Martinez's side are odds on to go down, and their fate could be sealed by Tuesday, which would take the gloss off a Wembley triumph.
As for City, who are the overwhelming favourites to win at Wembley, the FA Cup may feel like a bit of a comedown after last season's title glory. It has been a strangely underwhelming season for Roberto Mancini's troops even if they are expected to win a second cup final in three years.
Continuing the weekend's slightly surreal theme, it is undeniable that the match that will generate the most interest is one that has no direct significance for anyone involved, apart from a 71-year-old Scot.
Tickets to watch champions Manchester United take on ninth-placed Swansea on Sunday in what is essentially a pointless end-of-season kickabout are said to be changing hands for thousands of pounds on the black market. The reason? It's Alex Ferguson's last ever game in charge at Old Trafford.
Emotions will be running high in Salford as Fergie embraces mascot Fred the Red for one final time and takes his seat in the dugout. He will surely get a reception to remember, but it will also be interesting to see how the crowd react to Wayne Rooney, who has announced he wants to leave the club.
The game will be something of a sideshow as everyone will be waiting for the post-match ceremonials when United will be presented with the Premier League trophy and Fergie will bid farewell to the Man United faithful.
Events at Old Trafford will overshadow everything else, but Chelsea could ensure their place in next season's Champions League on Saturday when they face Aston Villa. A win for the Blues at Villa Park would secure them a top-four finish and, having not lost a league match since March, Rafa Benitez will be confident of getting the three points required.
Villa may have other ideas, after finally finding their form and surging away from the relegation zone in the last few weeks. They are still not technically safe and even a single point against Chelsea would go a long way to keeping them in the top flight. Chelsea would see a draw as something of a disaster, but it could be on the cards.
On Sunday, Spurs travel to Stoke for a lunchtime kick-off knowing three points is vital if they are to have any hope of getting into the top four, and they should be able to get them against Stoke, who have roused themselves just enough to avoid any realistic threat of relegation, but still look far from convincing.
The other team with eyes on a top four finish are Arsenal, but they do not play until Tuesday, when they take on Wigan in a match that could seal both their fates.
Back to the weekend and two of the teams at the bottom will be confident of earning some much needed points. Newcastle travel to relegated QPR while Norwich entertain mid-table West Brom. Wins would almost guarantee safety for the Magpies and Canaries; defeats would leave them in danger.
The big match in the basement is between Southampton and Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. A win for Sunderland could push Southampton back into the relegation mire, while a win for the Saints would leave Paolo di Canio sweating on the result of the Arsenal-Wigan match.
In Sunday's other matches, David Moyes will bid farewell to Goodison Park after 11 years in charge of Everton as West Ham come to town and Fulham take on Liverpool.