QPR manager, Mark Hughes aims to stop Manchester City on Sunday
The last day of a fascinating English Premier League season should be the final lesson in just how far an unthinkable amount of cash, in this case a cool half billion dollars, can take at team. Yet for all the lavish spending indulged by Manchester City's oil sheikh owners in pursuit of a championship, and with an EPL title now a single, tantalizing victory away, there is one factor no amount of money can eliminate.
That would be soccer's extraordinary ability to conjure up the remarkable, the impossible and the downright ridiculous at the moments of greatest importance. It is why logic would dictate that City, having triumphed over Manchester United and at Newcastle in its previous two games, will be taking nothing for granted against Queens Park Rangers, one of the most inept teams in the division. City, so dominant in the early part of the campaign, has recovered spectacularly from a mid-season dip that saw it fall behind United and seemingly surrender its chance of being crowned English soccer's champion again after a 43-year wait.
Its home record has just one blemish, a draw against Sunderland in March, to go along with 17 wins, most by a comfortable margin. Still, soccer's perverse nature means the three points that would guarantee the title cannot be regarded as a foregone conclusion, even against QPR, 17th in the table and in real danger of being relegated.
To thicken the plot is the delicious irony surrounding Mark Hughes, the QPR manager who was sacked from the same role at City in December 2009.
Hughes was embittered at the time and still harbours hostility toward his former employers over the manner and timing of his dismissal. Depriving them of the title would only be of secondary satisfaction to him, though, with QPR's own survival at stake.
Hughes was hired in January and spent heavily on new players, but was unable to reverse the ambitious West London club's fortunes. Defeat, coupled with a Bolton victory at Stoke on Sunday, would send QPR down and probably cost Hughes his job.
As if more intrigue was needed, the beneficiary of a QPR miracle would be United, the team where Hughes spent most of his playing career and became a fan favourite over two separate stints as a hard-working and clinical forward.
Even though relations between Hughes and United boss Sir Alex Ferguson have become frosty, Ferguson still is hoping for a favour and has the Red Devils primed to capitalize on any City slip-up. United visits Sunderland on the final day level on points with City, but the two clubs' respective goal difference means United has a chance at winning the title only if City fails to claim all three points.
"You never know," Ferguson said. "Stranger things have happened in this game of football. They are red-hot favourites, but we have won the title three times on the last day and we don't mind doing it again."
City has proven its big-game mentality and with the most expensively assembled squad in English soccer history, it should have more than enough tools to get the job done. An example that money doesn't just talk, but screams its lungs out, came when Cote d’Ivoire midfielder, Yaya Toure scored the two late goals needed to get past Newcastle last Sunday. Toure is a solid professional who generally shuns the superstar lifestyle, but his services do not come cheap. With a weekly pay packet of about $500,000, he is the highest paid player in the EPL.
While a title triumph would mean a great deal to every City player, the real beneficiary would be manager, Roberto Mancini, who looked to have crumbled under an onslaught of mind games from Ferguson during the cold winter months, but found new life in the spring. Failure to win silverware could have resulted in Mancini being discarded in the summer, but now he might be one victory away from inking a lucrative contract extension.
At the other end of the spectrum, the day dubbed Survival Sunday carries extreme repercussions for those in danger of seeing their EPL life extinguished for the time being. What was a six-team fight for survival just three weeks ago has now boiled down to a two-way scrap. Wolves and Blackburn will play next season in the second-tier Championship, Wigan and Aston Villa have secured their top-flight status, and either Bolton or QPR will slip through the trapdoor. .
Bolton carelessly let a two-goal lead slip against West Bromwich Albion last weekend when a victory could have boosted its chances, and it must beat Stoke then pray QPR loses at City.
Watching on from the stands will be Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton midfielder whose heart stopped beating for more than an hour after he collapsed during a game at Tottenham last month and whose recovery has served as inspiration for his colleagues.
While money is flush at the top of the EPL tree, the financial ramifications at the bottom are even more significant.
Dropping out of the EPL can cost a team up to $60 million and often leads to a fire sale of the highest-salaried players.
Survival Sunday will begin with no shortage of storylines and should have no shortage of drama.