And so the football season is gearing up for another dramatic conclusion, the Premiership moving into its final three matches, the title still up for grabs and relegation places grimly beckoning. No one can possibly know what will happen next.
Or can they?
With its complex tactical engine, based closely on real-life data, Football Manager claims to be the most authentic sports management simulation ever devised. Wannabe-Mourinhos spend more time playing it on the PC gaming platform Steam than any other title on the service, and the accuracy and depth of its 300,000-strong player database is such that it's rumoured to be used by professional scouts seeking out the next big superstars. In 2008, Everton even signed a deal to get unrivaled access to the game's statistics.
But how accurate is the game as a gauge of the real sport? To find out, the Guardian asked the series' developer Sports Interactive to run the end-of-season fixtures for England's four main leagues, plus the FA Cup and Champions League, through their engine. The team coded in all the correct fixtures, the likely squad selections and the prefered tactics of every side, and then let it run.
Here's what what football's biggest computer brain came up with.
The Barclays Premiership
No surprises here, perhaps. According to Football Manager, Liverpool will be crowned champions for the first time in 24 years.
“In the crunch top-two clash against Chelsea, Suarez gives Liverpool an early lead before a Salah equaliser midway through the second half," says Sports Interactive's football analyst, Tom Davidson, about the crucial forthcoming fixture. "With the game seemingly heading towards a draw, Chelsea fail to react to a Liverpool counter-attack and Coutinho coolly slots the ball past Schwarzer with eleven minutes left on the clock. The Reds then go on to draw 1-1 against Palace to all but secure the title.”
Perhaps the best part of Football Manager 2014, however, is how surprisingly accurate it can be about the personality of players and managers. “The in-game Mourinho’s reaction to the Liverpool victory was less than complimentary; he criticised Liverpool’s physicality on the pitch before refusing to answer any questions about his own players.” Wow, it really is accurate.
According to our simulation, Liverpool will end 2014 unbeaten, wrapping up their season with a 2-0 win against Newcastle. Luis Suarez will take his goal tally for the season to 33 and Brendan Rodgers is named Manager of the Year.
As for the rest? Mourinho's focus on the Champion's League, as well as injuries to Cech and Terry, see Chelsea pipped to second position by a rejuvenated Manchester City. “City themselves should have finished with a better points total,” note the Sports Interactive wizards, “but a misjudged backpass from Demichelis against Aston Villa allowed Agbonlahor to steal all three points.”
Everton falter at the last, drawing at Southampton and then beaten by Manchester City – which allows Arsenal to secure Champions League football yet again. The most priceless nugget in our simulated match? “Ashley Young was brought on as a sub against Southampton," says Davidson. "He was booked for diving."
Joining the Toffees in the Europa League are Tottenham, who pip Manchester United to 6th place. Despite Giggsy in the dugout, the Red Devils end a disappointing campaign with defeats to Hull and Southampton.
So that's the big boys. At the other end of the table, Sunderland stage a comeback for the ages by securing four points from their final four games and surviving on goal difference. “Andy Johnson’s brace in a 2-1 victory over West Brom proves to be the deciding factor in the relegation battle," says Davidson.
A final-day loss for the Black Cats against Swansea isn't quite enough for Norwich who, despite drawing 1-1 with Chelsea, take a 3-0 pounding from Arsenal. Meanwhile Cardiff and Fulham can't get out of the drawing habit, and both have a winless final three games and finish rooted to the bottom of the table.
Relegated: Norwich, Cardiff, Fulham
The Sky Bet Championship
With Leicester City and Burnley already promoted, the interest in the Championship's final games is on the playoff and relegation positions. Over to Davidson in the Sports Interactive studio: “Nottingham Forest claim the final playoff spot with back-to-back victories over Bournemouth and Brighton while Reading go in the opposite direction with successive defeats to Doncaster and Burnley.”
The playoffs themselves thus throw up an East Midlands clash between Derby and Forest, with QPR and Wigan contesting the other berth. With the spirit of Brian Clough no doubt yelling them on, Nottingham Forest continue their remarkable end-of-season form with a 4-2 aggregate victory. “Andy Reid scores twice over the two legs, with Jamie Paterson scoring the final goal of the tie in 2-1 win at the City Ground.”
The other semi is tighter, but Wigan scrape through with a 3-2 aggregate victory thanks to Marc-Antoine Fortune's winning goal in the second leg. Over to Sports Interactive for the final: “Wigan dominate possession but are frustrated by a string of good saves from Karl Darlow in the Forest goal. Wigan continue to pile men forward but are caught out by a quick counter-attack which leads to a Jamie Paterson header finding the top corner of the net – and Forest hold out to claim promotion.”
Good to see them back in the big-time. The relegation battle, sadly, is much less exciting, as the current bottom three of Blackpool, Yeovil and Barnsley all fail to pick up a win in their final two games – and head down to Sky Bet League 1.
Champions: Leicester City
Promoted: Burnley, Nottingham Forest
Relegated: Blackpool, Yeovil, Barnsley
Sky Bet League 1
With Wolves and Brentford already promoted, again our attention's on the playoffs. It is a time for heroes like the Posh – and we ain't talking Beckham. Peterborough secure their place with a pair of 1-1 draws against Shrewsbury and Port Vale, before hammering Preston in the first playoff semi-final 4-1 on aggregate. In the other semi Leyton Orient beat Rotherham 2-1 on aggregate, thanks to goals from David Mooney and Kevin Lisbie.
Over to Sports Interactive: “The final is played at a high tempo and Peterborough take an early lead through Brit Assombalonga, but Lisbie scores Orient’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time. Peterborough dominate the second-half but can’t find a way through until a deflected Jack Payne shot finds its way into the back of the net after 88 minutes.”
Bosh – the Posh are back in the Championship. At the other end of the table Notts County complete their Houdini act by escaping from the drop zone with a thrilling 2-1 win on the final day against Oldham, with Callum McGregor nabbing the winner in the 87th minute.
Sadly this result condemns Colchester United, who lose away to Walsall, to Sky Bet League 2. Shrewsbury put up more of a fight but a final day win over Gillingham isn't enough, and Carlisle's 3-1 defeat to the rampant Wolves confirms their relegation. Stevenage were already down, but go into the future on a positive note by beating the champagne-heavy Brentford 1-0.
Champions: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Promoted: Brentford, Peterborough
Relegated: Colchester United, Shrewsbury, Carlisle, Stevenage
Sky Bet League 2
Scunthorpe, Chesterfield and Rochdale are promoted to League 1 after all three teams go unbeaten in the final two games – and Scunthorpe’s win and a draw extends their long unbeaten run to the end of the season.
Sadly for Oxford United, their defeat to Northampton on the final day costs them 7th place and so the playoff places remain unchanged. Fleetwood face York in the first semi-final, and the Cod Army ease to a 3-1 aggregate win to book their ticket to Wembley. In the other semi-final things are even more one-sided as Burton overcome Southend 3-0.
The final gets off to a stunning start with a 20-yard Jon Parkin goal giving Fleetwood the lead within the first minute. They soon double their lead before half-time with an Antoni Sarcevic goal, but an Adam McGurk goal immediately after half-time gives Burton hope. It's not to be, however, and Fleetwood cose out the match to secure promotion to League 1.
Torquay and Wycombe Wanderers share a tragedy: their 1-1 draw on the last day of the season, coupled with results going against them, confirms both of their fates. Both exit the Football League.
Promoted: Chesterfield, Rochdale, Fleetwood
Relegated: Torquay, Wycombe Wanderers
Bonus! The FA Cup and Champion's League final
It's been too long since we've seen Arsene smile, and Arsenal claim their first piece of silverware since 2005 with a 2-0 win over Hull in the FA Cup final – goals from Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla ending nine years of hurt. “Hull will be happy with their performance, testing Szczesny on several occasions," says Davidson drily.
Poor Jose – Chelsea don't even make the final. It ends up in a Madrid derby that sees Real come out on top thanks to a vintage Cristiano Ronaldo performance. “The Portuguese winger emphasises his position as the world’s best player with a brace in a 3-1 win," says Davidson. "Atletico struggled to cope with Real’s attacking intent with Ronaldo, Isco and Bale linking up with ease – and Real finally win the decima that they’ve been wanting for so long.”
So there we have it. Plenty of drama, heartache and euphoria, with the odd surprise thrown in. Classic end-of-season stuff. And according to our simulation, every current manager in the English game will end the season with their job intact – which is perhaps the biggest shock of them all.
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