Entering the season's final furlong
The Champions League and FA Cup will rightly take centre stage for the next few days, but a what a finish there promises to be to the Premiership season. A few weeks ago, every major issue appeared virtually resolved. Manchester United for the title, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League, and Charlton, West Ham and Watford adrift at the bottom.
I wouldn't put much money on Liverpool not finishing third or fourth, and Watford's great win yesterday may well not save them. Otherwise, on all fronts, the season looks like going all the way. "It's up for grabs now," as a certain ITV commentator once famously said.
It certainly makes putting Match of the Day together a lot more fun when virtually every game is meaningful. Some Liverpool fans, in particular, have been in touch to complain that their team has been too low in the running order in recent weeks. We take the point, but both the last two Saturdays have seen them involved in the only game where neither side featured in the race for the title or to avoid relegation.
Manchester City's win at Newcastle, and Aston Villa's at Blackburn, for example, were both unexpected and took those famous old clubs out of immediate danger of the drop. Outside of the title race, a tight relegation battle tends to be next on our priority list, with the race for Europe of great interest, but third, all things equal. Liverpool have had two fine wins which have served only to cement them in third place. Unlike Arsenal, there appears to be no danger of them slipping out of a Champions League spot altogether.
As more teams find their way to mid-table safety, other matches will doubtless compete for last place on MOTD in the coming weeks. As I keep pointing out, at least the later games on the programme are given several minutes airtime, not the 30 seconds in the round-up that would once have been their fate.
Still, our upsetting Liverpool fans makes a change from the suggestion earlier in the season that we're "Big Four"- obsessed! Like our commentators and pundits, we editors can only call it as we see it, entirely honestly, in the certain knowledge that not everyone will agree.
This weekend sees us cover the live FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Watford at Villa Park in our first FA Cup programme since we and Sky lost the FA contract from the 2008-9 season onwards. I wrote about our disappointment on this website on the day of the announcement. In the week that followed, much was made of the FA's alleged disapproval of our coverage of the England team, but we'd all prefer to believe that the decision was simply financial. That's something we can accept with a certain resigned sadness: anything else is pretty unpalatable.
Any suggestion that a governing body, while receiving millions of pounds from a partner broadcaster, should also be protected from its criticism is, frankly, a non-starter. If you buy a club's matchday programme, subscribe to Chelsea TV or MUTV, or log onto the FA's website, you expect the editorial standpoint to praise the host organisation. The BBC's Charter - and public expectation - assigns us a different role.
We have been made aware, occasionally, of the FA's unhappiness with certain moments in our England coverage That's their prerogative as custodians of the national sport, just as it's ours to assert our editorial independence in return. It certainly never amounted to an Alistair Campbell v BBC News-style feud, nor did it affect our content in any way.
Anyone employed as a pundit by BBC Sport is expected to call it as they see it. If Michael Johnson occasionally upsets the athletics authorities, or John McEnroe the All-England Club, then so be it. Likewise, if Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, as ex-England captains, or the impartial Alan Hansen, decide to question an England performance or the manager's tactics, they have to be free to do so. Anything else would compromise not only our editorial independence, but also their professional credibility.
Anyway, we still have over a year to go on the current contract. Messrs Lineker and Shearer, along with all the English people behind the scenes, will be willing England to qualify in style for Euro 2008. And as for the FA Cup, we hope the semi-final and subsequent return to Wembley are classics to rival last year's final, and Chelsea v Spurs a few weeks ago.. However, if they're not, the pundits and commentators will be free to say so!