Premier League Final Weekend Preview: Race for Top 4 Takes Precedence

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistMay 19, 2017

Will Sunday see the UEFA Champions League turn its back on Arsene Wenger for the first time ever?
Will Sunday see the UEFA Champions League turn its back on Arsene Wenger for the first time ever?Associated Press

The Premier League is not supposed to meander. Yet here we are. A 25th edition of the "best and most competitive" league in the world arrives at its final stop on Sunday in a manner more befitting of a quaint steam train than one of the bullet variety.

With no urgency and little rush, those abound would be wise to sit back, relax and heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Life is a journey, not a destination."

For all the invariable spin about the race for the top four, the end game, on a literal level, almost certainly won't matter all that much. Arsenal supporters are unlikely to be as philosophical when it turns out their stop is the Europa League. Plus ca change, ad infinitum.

The majority of games broadcast by Sky Sports this week have been played in a laissez-faire spirit to the point it would not have been a surprise had away shirts been dispensed with in favour of visiting teams playing "skins," flips-flops worn instead of boots and dugouts replaced with deck chairs. Forget Pie-Gate, the smart money this weekend is on a Premier League substitute being caught getting stuck into a Feast.

All this, when added to the fact Chelsea's run-in effectively turned into a procession, has led to the time-honoured accusation that the Premier League has become stale, boring even. There being dull matches when teams meet that have enough points to be safe, yet nowhere near enough to challenge at the top, is hardly a new phenomena. Take Manchester United's trip to Southampton, for want of a better tranquilliser.

To this writer, it's all a little hysterical. Like flouncing out of a restaurant after an enjoyable meal because the mints aren't up to scratch. Phil Neville strikes as a man who keeps mints in his inside jacket pocket, just in case of emergencies.

It's the same with the final day. In 25 seasons, only on seven occasions has the title race gone to the wire. Football's not WWF (or is it called WWE these days?)—there's no scriptwriter on hand to ensure the penultimate weekend of the campaign ends on a cliffhanger.

There's a reason why in hundreds of years from now, when the Premier League's catacombs are discovered by our descendants, ancient footage of that Sergio Aguero goal against Queens Park Rangers will be treated with the same reverence as cave drawings depicting man lighting fire. Martin Tyler's finest hour was arguably him shrieking: "You'll never see anything like this."

In reality, most of us, including Tyler, had actually seen something pretty much exactly the same in 1989. Michael Thomas scoring in injury time of the last game of the season at Anfield on a Friday night (it was bagging under the floodlights that made it), when it was all up for grabs against Liverpool to win the title for Arsenal, was even better. It was pre the Premier League-years, though, so is probably hidden in the same vault Donald Trump stashes away things that are true but he's not keen on the rest of the world knowing about.

Still, Tyler kind of makes a pertinent point.

Memorable final days are the exception rather than the rule, even if this term's climax seems particularly underwhelming.

With Chelsea having won the league from the moment they switched to a back three against Arsenal in late September, Tottenham Hotspur guaranteed second place, Manchester United assured of a sixth spot that fits them now like a well-worn slipper, and Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull City having already felt the soil fall on their respective top-flight statuses, it is, for all intents and purposes, looking like a weekend largely consisting of dead rubbers.

It is the fight for the two remaining UEFA Champions League places that prevents the final day flatlining before it has even got under way.

Even then, it only starts to get interesting in the unlikely event of Watford beating Manchester City, or Liverpool dropping points at home to relegated Middlesbrough.

Chelsea and Tottenham are already assured of their spots in the Champions League group stage, with Manchester City currently in command of a third place that also avoids the aggravation of having to negotiate qualifying rounds when players are still burning off any summer excess.

For Arsene Wenger to continue his remarkable record of having qualified for Europe's premier club competition in each of his previous 20 seasons at the helm, he needs the type of fortune most probably used up in 2006.

On the eve of the final game of the season when Tottenham needed only to match Arsenal's result to finish above their rivals for the first time in 11 years, and in the process claim the final Champions League place, the majority of Spurs' players chose to tuck into lasagne laid on at the Marriott Hotel. Rumour has it Gunnersaurus was sous chef. Tottenham's players were literally as sick as a dog in falling to a defeat to West Ham United, while Arsenal beat Wigan Athletic 4-2.

Now 11 years on, there is no disputing who the best side is in north London right now and for the foreseeable. Thursday night's 6-1 victory at dethroned champions Leicester City saw Tottenham again underline how they would have been worthy winners of this season's title. As brutal as they were exceptionally slick, Spurs are like a killer that does the deed in silk gloves. Think Richard Hillman.

Harry Kane's four-goal haul takes him to the top of goalscoring charts on 26, two ahead of Romelu Lukaku. As highlighted by Opta's Duncan Alexander, Kane now has as many Premier League hat-tricks as Cristiano Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Diego Costa and Eric Cantona combined.

As a neutral, it's hard not to have at least a little crush on this Spurs side. If this team is broken up before it has won a title, it will be nothing short of tragic. This season represents their best-ever Premier League return by some 13 points.

A win at Hull City on Sunday would see them finish the campaign on 86 points. The record points total for a team that fell short of winning the league is 89. If neither the new stadium nor chairman Daniel Levy compromise Mauricio Pochettino over the summer, that number should only continue to head in one direction.

With Manchester City having two points on Liverpool and three ahead of Arsenal, they need just a draw at Watford to be absolutely sure of at least fourth place. The Hornets have lost their last five matches against City and haven't even taken a point off them for over 10 years. Stuart Pearce was City manager at the time in 2007, and he would probably need to be in charge again on Sunday for Watford to stand a realistic chance of bucking the trend.

A superior goal difference means even defeat at Vicarage Road would in all likelihood still not be enough to ruin Pep Guardiola's Thursday evenings next season. Arsenal would need a six-goal swing to move ahead of City in the table. City would only miss out altogether if that were to happen in conjunction with Liverpool beating Middlesbrough.

A big club would definitely sack Guardiola for finishing fifth.

For anyone that missed it, Guardiola gave a magnificent interview to Sky Sports this week (see tweet below). Channelling Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he has a glint in his eye that will compete with Branislav Ivanovic to haunt his interviewer Geoff Shreeves' dreams from now until forever.  

History suggests Sunday's home game against Everton shouldn't pose too many difficulties for Arsenal. Wenger has guided his team to 20 successive leagues victories in games between the two clubs in north London. Ronald Koeman's side on the road have taken just two points from a possible 15 against the top six this term. The Dutchman is shrewd enough to appreciate the seventh place they have guaranteed is exactly where they are currently at.

Liverpool in fourth need a win at Anfield against Middlesbrough to keep daylight between them and Arsenal. Failure to collect three points when coupled with Arsenal beating Everton would see Liverpool drop to fifth. Arsenal would also usurp them with a draw, should Jurgen Klopp's side lose by more than two goals. The last time Boro won by more than two goals, Bernie Slaven was probably leading the line.

There's been a lot of talk recently about whether it's possible to bottle something you're never been in control of. Spurs having the temerity to lose a match after winning nine on the spin constitutes a bottle job about as much as a Jaffa Cake constitutes being a cake simply by virtue of being called a cake—it's nonsensical to all but the very simple.

However, should Liverpool fail to get the job done against Middlesbrough, it would be a bottle job on the same scale as when they squandered a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace in the 2012/13 run-in. Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea eight days earlier has rendered "Crystanbul" somewhat of a forgotten relic, when in reality it was infinitely more preventable than what ensued at Anfield.

That said, and the spin is definitely getting to me now, too, West Ham United, Bournemouth and Southampton have all left Anfield this season with draws. Swansea City and Crystal Palace have both won in the league there, as have Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup. Just maybe it's not beyond the realm of all possibility Boro could make a 67-year-old Frenchman very happy on Sunday. 

The old romantic Wenger will have spent the week daydreaming about Steve Agnew emerging as the most unlikely of Scouse-slayers. Arsenal TV regulars, meanwhile, will no doubt use any time on camera pre-match to constructively talk through their own existential crisis. Either that or they will shout at great length about the fact Middlesbrough have won just one Premier League game in the last five months and failed to score in seven of their last eight away games. As though that might be Wenger's fault, too.

There must be at least a little part of Wenger that thinks finishing fifth might just be worth it for how it would make Piers Morgan feel. To give you an insight, Piers, it would feel exactly like what the rest of us feel when we accidentally flick on to ITV on a weekday morning. Like standing on a rake. 

Stephen Hawking has seemingly been hired by the Premier League to work out the permutations for when a play-off for third place might be required between Manchester City and Liverpool. There's also, apparently, the vague possibility of a play-off being needed to decide third and fourth that would see Manchester City play Arsenal. The Guardian has published a full run-down of scenarios that are essentially wishful thinking on the part of people who can't contemplate a summer without Premier League football of some description.

Chelsea conclude a magnificent campaign that somehow feels sorely underestimated already with a home game against Sunderland. The Black Cats' only hope of avoiding a terrible thumping is lasagne. Having already matched the 90 points Arsenal's Invincibles accrued in 2003/04, a win on Sunday would put Chelsea second in the list of all-time highest Premier League point scorers behind Jose Mourinho's class of 2004/05, out in front on 95.

One more victory would represent a 30th of the season in the league, a new record in a 38-game campaign.

A funny peculiar as opposed to funny ha-ha league season for Manchester United concludes with a dour home draw against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.

Mourinho's showy bravado and catalogue of excuses for a Premier League performance as bad as David Moyes', and worse than Louis Van Gaal's (at least in terms of final position), is either a (rapidly cracking) veneer or he's well on his way to completing a fascinating metamorphosis into Walter Mitty.

Even if they beat Palace, which according to Mourinho would be up there with beating Bayern Munich in 1999, 18 leagues wins would still represent a lowest-ever tally in a Premier League season. They last had fewer wins in a season in 1990-91. A side in which Clayton Blackmore made most appearances managed just 16.

Despite being at least partially responsible for assembling the most-expensive side in the history of football, Mourinho has somehow convinced at least half of the world that scoring two fewer goals than Bournemouth is acceptable on the grounds United have reached the Europa League final. 

Here's hoping he doesn't change. Mourinho is infinitely more entertaining than his team.

Elsewhere, despite strong suspicions to the contrary, there are apparently no crap matches at the weekend. The Times' Ben Topliss, among others, have been manfully beating Rupert Murdoch's the Premier League's drum as best they can. Talk of several clubs having nothing left to play for has been dismissed on the grounds "each position in the league is worth an additional £1.9 million thanks to the new TV deal." 

Even still, it seems a touch hopeful to expect mini-classics to ensue between Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion, Southampton and Stoke City, Burnley and West Ham, Leicester and Bournemouth.

Leicester and West Ham still have seven places and £13.3 million to play for. Crystal Palace, Stoke City, Burnley and Watford, who can all still finish between 11th and 17th, can potentially earn or drop as much as £11.4 million.

Outgoing Watford boss Walter Mazzarri might not speak perfect English, but one suspects he'll have "Don't break your backs on my account, lads" down to a tee on Sunday. Call it a parting gift to the club's owners, the Pozzo family, who have now gone through seven permanent managers since buying Watford five years ago. 

Chelsea received £38 million for finishing top, while Sunderland for propping up the rest of the table were allocated a paltry £1.9 million. You'll probably put down the world's smallest violin on learning the Black Cats in total earned around £100 million in Premier League payments this season. Not bad work for six wins if you can get it. If nothing else, it would help finance a compensation package, were one required.

Super Accountant Sunday, it is then.


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