Depending on wherever you prefer Frank, Elvis or Sid, the 2018/19 English Premier League season is approaching the final curtain. Some teams have lived the campaign to the full, while others will be reflecting on how their carefully charted course didn’t really work out. And for the majority of fans, the season will be one where they loved, laughed and cried.
After 35 games, the end is only 270 minutes (plus stoppage time, naturally) away. Which means that we are moving into the part of the season where joy, relief, and despair will be the dominant emotions. Players can see the finish line, while supporters will hoping to limit the possibility of soiled trousers.
At the top of the table, the remaining three games will decide who out of Manchester City and Liverpool wins the league, and which European competition the rest of the top six enter. Two teams have already been relegated (no prizes for guessing who), which means that the third team is yet to be decided – Cardiff, Southampton, Brighton, and Burnley are all fighting for this dubious honor.
For nine teams, the remaining fixtures are less about squeaky bums and more about how much prize money they will get for not winning anything, not qualifying for Europe or avoiding the drop down into the Championship. In addition, the Golden Boot is still up for grabs, and the Player of the Year is yet to be announced (my money is on Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk for the latter award, if anyone fancies a cheeky bet).
There is so much still to be decided that the fact that only three games remain before we get to spend the summer getting our soccer fix from international games, meaningless pre-season friendlies and the MLS seems a bit odd. It seems like only yesterday that I was ruminating on what was going to happen in the last two months of the season.
With that in mind, let’s take a few moments to consider not only the current state of play, but the winners and losers of EPL Gameweeks 31 through 35.
A Top-Two Battle Royale
If you want to know why this EPL season has been arguably dominated by two teams, then you only need to look at the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
With the exception of Manchester United‘s Paul Pogba (included one assumes because he played quite well from November until the end of March), the entire team is composed of Manchester City and Liverpool players. These two clubs have been duking it out since Day One, and the whoever lifts the trophy on May 12 will be a worthy winner.
Both teams have won their last five games, and have lost only five games between them all season. For Manchester City, the maths is simple … win their last three games and they are champions for the second successive season. Liverpool – who are one point behind – also need to win their last three games, but they need City to drop points somewhere.
The problem for Liverpool is that City don’t look like slipping up. They dominated Manchester United in Gameweek 34, although they were slightly fortunate to beat Spurs 1-0 in Gameweek 33. In fact, they looked very nervous against Spurs, but that might have had something to do with the fact that they had been involved in one of the all-time classic Champions League clashes with the Londoners three days earlier.
City’s remaining fixtures have minimal banana skins. Away trips to Burnley and Brighton bookend a home match with Leicester City. All three games are winnable, and that means that Liverpool could find themselves waiting another year to claim their first EPL trophy. Liverpool have two home games left – Huddersfield and Wolves – with a trip to Newcastle the likely blip in their schedule.
In fact, the title race is no longer Liverpool’s to lose, rather they must hope that their opponents are already thinking about their summer holidays and that the teams facing City want Liverpool to win the league. Stranger things have happened in football, but I tipped City to win out and I can’t see them dropping points at this point in the season.
And while it may sound weird, the consolation prize of another Champions League final – provided they get past Barcelona, naturally – may be the only thing that media favorite Jurgen Klopp has to show for a season of relative success, albeit that he spent a lot of money to finish asa potential runner up.
Champions League, You’re Having A Laugh
The rest of the top six has been set in stone for weeks now.
Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are way ahead of the also-rans, mid-table pack, and have all been fighting for the chance to either play the European big boys or some team from Estonia that sounds like a computer virus. Without wishing to dismiss the Europa League as a second-rate option – winning it does get you into next season’s Champions League, for instance – the mini-league that has developed has been fascinating to watch.
Spurs, who have been third for most of the season, seem to have weathered their bad spell (which coincided with Harry Kane‘s return from injury, bizarrely) and have picked up three wins out of five. Their two defeats were against Liverpool – in injury time – and Manchester City, but the long-awaited return to N17 has been a major factor with three wins and no goals conceded. Three more wins and third place is assured.
The club also has a Champions League semi-final against Ajax to look forward to, and there is an air of confidence around the team at the moment. The fact that Harry Kane is injured again has meant that other players have stepped up, with Heung-Min Son proving that he is more than capable of becoming a Spurs legend.
Chelsea, sitting in fourth, have had the sort of season that leads to yet another manager being dismissed by the Roman Empire. Three successive wins over Cardiff, Brighton and West Ham, respective, have done little more than paper over the cracks, and there is an expectation that the club will have to spend heavily to challenge again. One small fly in the ointment … FIFA have banned the club from buying any players for two transfer windows for breaching regulations.
Manager Maurizio Sarri has cut a miserable figure for most of the campaign, with the smart money on him moving on sooner rather than later. Star player Eden Hazard has been linked with a move to Real Madrid all season, so Chelsea need to qualify for the Champions League to have any real (no pun intended) chance of holding on to him. With that being said, Chelsea are the footballing equivalent of a cockroach … just when you think they are dead, they not only spring back to life but are also likely to be the only survivors of a nuclear war.
Arsenal have also had a weird season under new manager Unai Emery. Imperious at home – with the exception of the recent Crystal Palace game – and routinely dreadful on the road, the Gunners have spent most of 2019 looking up at hated neighbors Spurs. Five games ago, there were rumors that St. Totteringham’s Day was going to happen again, but Arsenal’s recent form has suggested that the bunting will remain in the cupboard for the time being.
Much like Liverpool, Arsenal (who are fifth) need the teams above them to drop points if they are to return to the Champions League. Two of their remaining fixtures are away – Leicester and Burnley – and they will be confident of beating Brighton at the Emirates Stadium. On the plus side, they are involved in a Europa League semi-final (as are Chelsea), so the backdoor route into the Champions League is still open.
Sixth-placed Manchester United are another team who would prefer to be dining at the top European table as opposed to grabbing a quick burger from the Europa League drive-thru.
Five games ago, the Solskjaer Revolution was in full flow. The team was playing well, they looked like Manchester United players again and the Holy Grail of the Top Four spot that former boss Mourinho promised was within reach. The club was so impressed with what caretaker boss Ole had done that they gave him the job on a permanent basis.
And then the wheels fell off.
The run of winnable fixtures yielded two, both at home and against opposition (Watford and West Ham) that you would expect United to beat. Defeats away to Wolves (2-1) and Everton (4-0) meant that the Manchester Derby in Gameweek 35 was a must-win game for the club if they wanted to get into the Champions League places, but the team underperformed – again – and City’s 2-0 victory underscored both the gap in class between the two clubs and size of the task facing Solskjaer.
The BBC’s Phil McNulty summed up the situation at Old Trafford brilliantly, noting that United are a “band of misfits who, in a footballing context, cannot bear any semblance of comparison with Pep Guardiola’s side.”
“Manchester City made ‘The Theatre Of Dreams’ a house of pain for Manchester United as they brutally demonstrated the gulf between a modern, upwardly mobile club and one in a state of disrepair,” McNulty wrote. “Old Trafford’s leaking roof, the result of a pre-match thunderstorm, was almost symbolic of the current condition of United as City – once airily dismissed as “the noisy neighbours” by Sir Alex Ferguson – brutally emphasised their vast superiority with a punishing performance to take a measure of control in the Premier League title race.”
Time will tell if Ole is the right man for the job, but United also need to win their last three games and pray that Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all drop points if they are to have any hope of playing the likes of Barcelona, Juventus or Bayern Munich in Europe next season. Personally, I think they have two … none and Bob. And Bob has been dead for a while.
Two Down, One To Go
In what will be a complete shock to almost nobody, Huddersfield Town and Fulham will be playing at a lower level next season.
Huddersfield managed to equal the earliest relegation in Premier League history when they lost to Crystal Palace in Gameweek 32, a result that saw them 19 points from safety with only 18 left to play for. Being relegated with six games to go was probably a blessing in surprise for the team and their fans, the latter having suffered through a season that must have seemed longer than the latest Avengers movie.
Anyone who follows football will know that the table never lies, and Huddersfield have been rubbish all season. Three wins in 35 games tells it’s own story, as does a points total of 14 (to date) – only Derby County can beat that, accruing 11 points and 1 win over the course of the 2007/08 campaign.
The team notched 20 goals and conceded 69 …. to put that into context, Harry Kane has 17 on his own, despite being injured for a decent chunk of the year. It might seem to be stating the obvious, but Huddersfield have just not been good enough to compete, and there is no guarantee that they will bounce back any time soon.
Fulham, on the other hand, have managed to get relegated after just one season. The Cottagers spent well over $120 million on players during the close season, with the expectation that they would (at the very least) do enough to be mid-table after 38 games. Sadly, this was not the case. Three different managers and more money spent in the January transfer window failed to provide the spark, and Fulham will depart the EPL with the stench of failure in their nostrils.
Six wins in 35 is better than Huddersfield, but two of those came after relegation was confirmed. Fulham have also managed to let in more goals than Huddersfield – 76 at the time of writing – but they did score 33. Which is some sort of plus, I suppose. On the plus side, owner Shahid Khan will likely dip into his personal cash reserves (again) to try and guarantee an automatic return to the EPL, irrespective of his recent investments proving that money is not always the answer.
So, with two spots filled, the question is who joins them?
Four teams are still in the mix – Cardiff, Brighton, Southampton, and Burnley –although the latter is mathematically safe with three games to go (they are nine points clear of 18th placed Cardiff and have a +17 goal difference on the Welsh side). Cardiff are the favorites to take the third relegation spot, but they are only three points behind a Brighton team that has not scored an EPL goal for 630 minutes.
Cardiff’s remaining games are not easy, with a trip to Manchester United on the last day of the season. That is not likely to be the game that decides their fate. Rather, they will be looking to get something out of both Fulham and Crystal Palace, two teams that will be mentally putting up their deckchairs for the summer break.
Every year, one team gets sucked into a relegation battle that seemed impossible a few short weeks ago, and Brighton seem to be that team. An 88th minute defeat to Spurs in midweek left the players slumped on the floor,with manager Chris Hughton saying in a post-match interview that that the dressing room was “very down.”
“We’ve got three games and we have to make sure we get enough points to secure our status in this division,” Hughton told the BBC. “The pressure comes with the territory and we’ll have to deal with it.”
That pressure is unlikely to lessen when you consider that they still have to play Arsenal and – joy of joys – Manchester City before the end of the season. If they can get anything out of those games, then it would be a miracle, but at least they might catch Newcastle dreaming of their summer holidays in Gameweek 36.
Southampton are six points clear of Cardiff and really only need one win out of their remaining games to assure another season of top-flight football. Their remaining fixtures are a South Coast derby against Bournemouth and a trip to West Ham. And if they haven’t got their win by May 12, they round off the campaign with a home game against … Huddersfield.
To be fair, the Saints are another team that has endured a long and frustrating season, especially when you consider that they have received a lot of money (mainly from Liverpool) for their players in the last couple of years.
However, we all know that splashing the cash on players is not a guarantee of success. Southampton have also changed managers during the season, and the expectation is that new boss Ralph Hasenhuttl will be putting his own stamp on the squad in the summer.
Gameweek 36 – What Matters
The outstanding matters will not be concluded in Gameweek 36.
The two title contenders have games that they should win – Liverpool host Huddersfield,City go to Burnley – while the rest of the top six will be looking to either cement their current position or put pressure on their rivals. Manchester United or Chelsea will certainly drop points (they play each other), and Spurs will want to maintain their 100 percent start at the magnificent Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – finally opened on April 3 –with a win over West Ham. Arsenal get to play Leicester, a game that could confirm whether or not there is any chance of a St. Totteringham’s Day celebration in the red half of London.
At the bottom, a defeat for Cardiff and a win for Brighton would leave the former six points behind with two games to play. However, Cardiff’s woeful goal difference (-35 after 35 games) is essentially worth an extra point to the teams above them, so the third and final relegation spot could well be filled. Southampton, on the other hand, will know that a Cardiff loss basically confirms their own safety, with the South Coast team six points ahead at the time of writing.
3,150 minutes of football have already been played this season, there are only 270 left to enjoy. Make the most of them … because we then have to wait until August for the season to start again.
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