Common wisdom dictates that the fortunes of a politician or political group can change dramatically in the course of a single week, but anyone who follows the English Premier League is more than aware that the 38-game season can throw curveballs into the campaign quicker than an NFL owner leaving a strip-mall day spa.
As recently as February 11, the EPL season was moving nicely towards an intriguing finish. Gameweek 26 had reinforced the top six and highlighted the relegation candidates, while the best of the rest were consolidating their league positions before booking their summer holidays.
The title race was arguably between three teams, and the battle for the final Champions League spot was likely to come down to whether Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal wanted it more. At the bottom of the table, Huddersfield and Fulham were still rubbish, which left just the small matter of which other team joined them in the Championship next season.
The Beautiful Game, however, prefers that players and supporters don’t relax … for any period of time. As a result, Gameweeks 27 through 30 have had a significant effect on not only the EPL landscape but also the questions that we thought were close to being answered.
With that in mind, let’s take a dive into the current state of play in the 2018/19 Premier League season. Trust me, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Lee Dixon was right
After Gameweek 26, I rashly predicted that Tottenham Hotspur would be the team to give Manchester City and Liverpool a run for their money. I even stalked NBC’s Lee Dixon (and former Arsenal player) on a social media portal for his continued assertion that Spurs had “no chance” of securing their first title since 1961.
I am now eating humble pie on a daily basis.
A three-horse race is back to the two thoroughbreds, with Tottenham falling away like a 2000-1 outsider in the Kentucky Derby. And if you are reading this, Lee, I want to apologize (as a Spurs supporter) for doubting your pundit’s spider-sense.
Spurs have lost three out of the last four games, and were lucky not to make it a 100 percent loss record in Gameweeks 27 to 30 after Arsenal missed a penalty in the 89th minute of the North London derby on March 2. One point out of a possible 12 has seen an end to their slim title hopes and, annoyingly, allowed the teams below them to reduce the points gap.
Manchester City and Liverpool, on the other hand, have continued to rack up the points, with the blue half of Manchester now 13 points clear of third-placed Spurs.
Liverpool are only a point behind City after 30 games, but the pressure is now on the Reds to keep their title challenge going. City only played three games during this period – due to their involvement in the League Cup final on February 24 – but they won all of them. By contrast, Liverpool won two and drew two of their four games, albeit that both of those draws finished goalless.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has come in for some stick for some of his bizarre theories as to why his team have struggled at times this season, but blaming the weather (as he did after the scoreless draw at Everton in Gameweek 29) is papering over the fact that Mo Salah is not scoring as freely as he was. Manchester City are also struggling to maintain their form in front of goal, registering one-nil wins against West Ham and Bournemouth, respective, before beating Watford 3-1 in Gameweek 30.
On the plus side, City are the team at the top of the table. And while manager Pep Guardiola told the BBC that he thinks it “is almost impossible” not to drop points between now and May 12 – his team are still in both the FA Cup and the Champions League – the consensus is that Liverpool will have to win every one of their games to be in with a chance.
Brexit is not an EPL priority
On March 29, the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union. Widely considered to be one of the best examples of ongoing government incompetence, the depressing vote-centric saga has dragged on for nearly three years with no actual deal to leave currently in place.
However, the race to be part of European competition next season is firmly in the hands of four clubs – Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea.
Spurs, as I mentioned above, are in a rare vein of form – awful, but consistent. Despite Harry Kane returning to the side on February 23, the team lost to Burnley (2-1) and Chelsea (2-0) drew with Arsenal (1-1), and then managed to concede two goals in five minutes to lose 2-1 at Southampton.
From being credible title challengers for most of the season, there is now a very real chance that Spurs might not even finish in the top four, with manager Mauricio Pochettino (who was serving the first of his two-game touchline ban) stating after the Southampton defeat that the team was demonstrating its “real level.”
“This is our reality” Pochettino said, according to the BBC. “People talk about perceptions but we need to realize if you do not fight with intensity for the Champions League, you will struggle. We are fighting against big sides. We had a big gap, welcome to the reality, we are under pressure to win games. It is a massive challenge for us.”
Four points now separate Spurs in third to Chelsea in sixth, but the worry for Spurs’ fans is that Arsenal are only a point behind after beating Manchester United on March 10. This change in fortunes has led some Arsenal fans to believe that the notorious St. Totteringham’s Day – the moment when it is mathematically impossible for Spurs to finish above Arsenal – could be celebrated for the first time since 2016.
Arsenal have won three out of their last four games, which is one reason why what was a gap of 10 points on February 23 is now down to a single point. Arsenal’s goal difference has also made a difference, with the Gunners scoring 10 and only conceding two in the last four games. By contrast, Spurs have only scored three times (all by Kane) and let in seven.
All of which points to one team on the rise and the other stumbling like a punch-drunk fighter.
The other two members of the Big Six are also in the hunt for the final Champions League spots. Manchester United suffered their first EPL loss under the Solskjaer Revolution against Arsenal, and have seen the Londoners overtake them as a result. However, they are only three points behind Spurs and they have a run of winnable fixtures before the Manchester derby on April 24.
Chelsea recovered from their 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Man City by beating Spurs and Fulham (the latter was not a surprise) before needing an injury-time equalizer against Wolves to maintain their quest for a top-four finish. The Blues still need to go to Liverpool and Manchester United in their final eight games, but they have a game in hand over the teams above them and a victory would put the lion right among the pigeons.
“When you have to play only 10 matches, every match you’re not able to win is a missed opportunity,” Sarri said, after the home draw with Wolves. “In the last six matches, we won four matches and drew the other two. So there is a little consistency in this moment. We have one match in hand, so we have to be confident.”
The trapdoor is already open
At the other end of the table, Huddersfield and Fulham’s fate should be sealed sooner rather than later.
Both clubs are adrift of the teams above them, with Huddersfield 16 points away from Burnley in 17th after 30 games. Fulham are not much better placed and are even 11 points worse off than Cardiff in 18th. The London club spent buckets of cash in the summer and have underperformed to such a level that they are on their third manager this season.
To say that this has been a poor campaign for these two teams is an understatement, and Huddersfield still have to play Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United before the end of the season. Fulham face Liverpool and Manchester City in their next two games, so if the fat lady has not started to sing, she is certainly in the dressing room with some sort of throat warming liquid.
Cardiff are still very much in a relegation dogfight and while they play four out of the big six in their last eight games – the Manchesters, Chelsea and Liverpool – it is likely that manager Neil Warnock will not let his team meekly surrender to the pull of a relegation black hole. The problem for Cardiff is that the teams above them have been picking up points and while only six points separate the Welsh club from Newcastle United in 13th, it will come down to not only their rivals’ fixture run-in but also how many of those games are the proverbial six-pointers.
That is not to say that Cardiff are the most likely to join Huddersfield and Fulham in the Championship, but more that fans of Brighton, Crystal Palace and the aforementioned Newcastle are going to be happier with their current positions. By the same chalk, Burnley and Southampton are old hands at fighting off relegation and this is another moment when experience can be worth extra points.
EPL safety is closer for some
Away from the tensions at the top and bottom of the table, there are six clubs who will be looking forward to the end of the season.
Wolves have had a fantastic season since Day One and were only an Eden Hazard goal away from a famous victory at Chelsea in Gameweek 30. The Midlands club have been a thorn in the side for a lot of established EPL clubs in their first season back in the top flight and could be a real force in years to come. They are also still in the FA Cup and will be looking to that as a possible route to the Europa League next season.
Like Wolves, Watford have also punched above their weight over their 30 games.
Getting to the assumed safety margin of 42 points with eight games to go is no mean feat and the Hornets will be looking to push on until the end of the season. As a bonus, they will have an opportunity to have a say in the fortunes of three of the Big Six, with fixtures against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, respective.
In fact, Watford could also be the final nail in the coffin for Fulham and Huddersfield, thanks to the fixture calendar throwing both teams in Watford’s path before the end of April.
The other four teams – West Ham, Leicester City, Everton and Bournemouth – should have done enough this campaign to guarantee another EPL payday next season. The latter two clubs are 10 points clear of Cardiff and it is unlikely that they will get dragged down into the relegation mire with eight games left.
West Ham and Leicester can also start thinking about which beach they will be spending a fortnight on, although new Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers will want to stamp his mark on the Foxes before the final ball is kicked.
Once Huddersfield and Fulham accept their fate, there is only one relegation spot to be decided. The chances of that being filled by either Bournemouth or Everton are minuscule, so their fans should be thinking about how their teams can improve next year as opposed to planning trips to Hull, Swansea or Sheffield.
On the flip side, stranger things have happened.
The Beautiful Game has a reputation for throwing a spanner in the works, and with eight games to go and 24 points available to every team, there is every possibility that late-season drama could overcome an unsuspecting set of players. But I really doubt that any of these mid-table teams will need to do much more than play out the rest of their games before their well-earned summer holiday.
Gameweek 31 … short but sweet
The FA Cup will take center stage again at the weekend, which means that only five EPL games will be played.
Six EPL teams are in the quarter-finals of the oldest national football competition in the world – Manchester City, Manchester United, Watford, Crystal Palace, Wolves and Brighton – so Gameweek 31 is only going to apply to 10 teams. Two of the top six will play, with Liverpool taking on hapless Fulham and Chelsea going to Everton.
To make things slightly more confusing, Chelsea’s game will constitute their game in hand over Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs, so the top of the table can still change.
Elsewhere, the action is concentrated at the bottom of the league. Bournemouth take on Newcastle, Burnley entertain Leicester, and West Ham will probably pile on more misery for Huddersfield. With that in mind, nothing will be decided, although defeats for Fulham and Huddersfield will prolong their EPL agony for the foreseeable future.
30 games down, eight to go. And then we can all take a deep breath until it all kicks off again in August
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