Welcome to world football's Monday Morning Hangover, an homage to the NFL section's own Monday Morning Hangover, in which we round up the key stories and important points from the latest weekend in world football.
With an inevitable focus on the Premier League, let's get started.
Relegation Leaves 3 Teams Waiting Desperately
And then there were three. On the penultimate weekend of the Premier League season, Leicester City, thanks to a 0-0 draw with Sunderland, and Aston Villa, thanks to a 6-1 defeat (!) at Southampton, secured their Premier League status for another season, leaving Hull City, Newcastle United and Sunderland scrambling to avoid the one spot still undetermined in the relegation zone.
Steve Bruce's Hull side are now in the unenviable position of being in the driving seat for that sorry demise, with the Tigers knowing they need to beat Manchester United on the final day to have any chance of staying up. If they do so, they would condemn Newcastle to the Championship if John Carver's side lose or draw—thanks to the Magpies' significantly inferior goal difference.
If Newcastle also win, however, then that could pull Sunderland into the mix. If Dick Advocaat's side pick up just a point against Arsenal on Wednesday—a game in hand created by the Gunners' FA Cup involvement—they will be safe before the weekend. Even if they fail to get anything at the Emirates Stadium, a point against Chelsea on the last day of the season will see them squeeze to safety.
If they fail on both counts, however—and let's be honest, the form book would suggest they might—then they could leave just enough room for both teams below them to slip past right at the death.
"We need one point out of our next two games and the teams beneath us would have to win as well. We still have our fate in our own hands," Advocaat said, per the club's official website. “Now we’ll go to Arsenal and Chelsea, knowing if we get a point from either we’ll be okay.”
It would take a surprising turn of events for Sunderland to end up going down, but stranger things have happened on the final day of previous Premier League campaigns. Nevertheless, the Black Cats would much rather be in the position they currently occupy than swap situations with either of the sides directly below them.
Newcastle have the easiest fixture, on paper, of the sides in question, with a home game against West Ham United—burdened with nothing to play for, which is about as generous a challenge as you could hope for in such a situation. But Carver's side have now not won for 10 games on the spin, the latest defeat coming on Saturday, when they somehow contrived to throw away a lead and lose 2-1 to already relegated Queens Park Rangers.
Whenever a club loses nine games out of 10, you have to ask serious questions about its suitability to the top flight.
"This is the biggest game this football club has faced in a long, long time," Carver said, relayed by Liam Corless of the Daily Mirror. "The players have given everything. They’ve had a go but sometimes the quality isn’t there, you’re just not good enough."
For Carver, it was the latest in a series of questionable comments about his players, although on this occasion, it was hard to argue with his honesty. The very shortcomings that condemned QPR to their early demotion were in full evidence as Newcastle took the lead through Emmanuel Riviere, yet the visitors wilted in the second half and barely put up a fight as their opponents stole a victory that ultimately did nothing for their own situation.
Newcastle would have confirmed their survival with three points, and yet still they couldn't muster a reasonable response. They are now looking over their shoulders into the abyss.
Carver added: "It’s a huge football club and you’ve got to have that personality to deal with wearing the shirt. We will find out next weekend."
What will save them will not be any quality on their part—although they might need some of that on Sunday—but rather the even greater inadequacy of the teams around them.
Hull must be regretting their own disastrous home defeat to Burnley—a missed opportunity for three points that marked the start of a horror week that saw Jake Livermore's failed drugs test become public knowledge and a follow-up league defeat to Spurs leave them with only the slimmest hopes of avoiding a return to the Championship.
Hull host Bruce's former team Manchester United on the final day, hoping for a miracle win that somehow prolongs their Premier League stay. Per Matt Law of the Daily Telegraph, Bruce said:
I am not going to deny it has been one of the most difficult 24-48 hours that I have had to deal with and I have been doing it now for 17 years. I couldn’t quite believe it. I’m still in a state of shock with it now.
Jake knows he's let everybody down and he's let himself down, so I'm not going to be the judge and jury. I think that would be wrong of me, but I'm obviously disappointed and the consequences will be laid out in the next few weeks or so.
Whoever they play they are Man United and it’s going to be tough. Look we will prepare as best we can for a huge game. We are playing Manchester United, so let’s hope we can produce a performance like we did against Tottenham and give ourselves a chance.
Things seem to be conspiring against Bruce, whose only crumb of comfort is perhaps the fact that, as long as Arsenal win in midweek, United will come to the KC Stadium with nothing to play for. In the past, United have been last-day benefactors—West Ham famously staying up in 2007 thanks to a final-day win at Old Trafford—and maybe history will repeat itself.
Having nothing notable to play for is also the case for 16 other teams in the division, but for three of them, the stakes are now as high as they have ever been. Livelihoods are at stake, as careers could turn on the outcome of three games.
After poor seasons for all three, you can make a valid case for why each deserves to go down—we will wait and see which two avoid that particular fate. Only then can we debate whether they deserve it.
Goal of the Weekend
If you score the goal to win the title, you get goal of the weekend. Simple.
Goal of the Weekend: Runner-Up Edition
- A few goodbyes at Old Trafford, with Radamel Falcao leaving few people in any doubt that he will not be at Manchester United next season with the manner he wandered off the pitch in his final, disappointing appearance at the ground. David De Gea then followed suit. The Spaniard was barely any more convincing as he limped away with an injury—an enforced substitution that meant he too had to wave to an adoring crowd in a way that hardly screamed "see you next season!"
United will not really miss Falcao if he goes—just miss what he could have been. Losing De Gea, however, would be a different matter entirely. "It is not easy to choose between two great clubs," Van Gaal said, per BBC Sport. "We would be very happy if he stays. Of course he is Spanish and his girlfriend is Spanish and he can go to another great club, so it is difficult for him to decide. David De Gea shall not leave us so easily because we are a great club and he wants to participate."
- Another player almost certain to be on his way out of his current club? Charlie Austin, who was notably the last QPR player to leave the pitch at Loftus Road on Saturday, seemingly soaking up the atmosphere and the situation for as long as possible. The striker has been one of the few bright spots in the club's season and will surely not struggle for suitors this summer—depending on the price tag put on him. It will be interesting to see if a top-seven club pursues him; if not, then any club from Crystal Palace down would surely be enhanced by his arrival.
- Steven Gerrard's emotional farewell to Anfield obscured another disappointing result for Liverpool and a disappointing finish to the season. The strong run of form sparked by Brendan Rodgers' switch to a formation featuring a three-man defence in December has long since been extinguished, and the Reds now enter the summer with more doubts than ever about their future direction. Crystal Palace might be Liverpool's bogey team, but Rodgers will be eager to find a way to instil his team with the same combination of defensive structure and attacking vibrancy Alan Pardew seems to have hit upon with the Eagles.
- Swansea City lost. Everton picked up a handful of yellow cards. Both sides now look certain to miss out on the Europa League next season—the Welsh side certainly will—but perhaps that will prove to be a blessing in disguise for both clubs. Garry Monk and Roberto Martinez will surely be targeting another assault on the top-six next term—Martinez may need to retain his job—and avoiding the additional headache of continental competition can only help them with that.
- A round of applause for Sadio Mane, even if two-thirds of his three-minute hat-trick were effectively handed to him on a plate. Considering that, however, it seems impossible to believe such a speedy hat-trick will ever be scored again in the Premier League. When you consider the time wasted between each goal and subsequent restart, surely three minutes is at the very lowest end of what is realistically possible. Robbie Fowler's previous record stood for almost 21 years, but Mane's could well last triple that. Fortunately for Villa, their calamitous defending did not stop other results keeping them in the division for at least another season.
- With Bournemouth and Watford already preparing for life in the Premier League next season, we now know that the other team to join them will be either Middlesbrough or Norwich City—two sides with fairly recent Premier League experience. Middlesbrough brushed aside Brentford to reach next Monday's Wembley showpiece, while Norwich showed no little quality to overcome resilient archrivals Ipswich Town to book their place in "the richest game in football."
Few neutrals would argue that these were the two best teams in the play-offs, and the margins of their semi-final victories underlines that. Now all that's left is to see which can hold their nerve to reach the promised land.
Good Week, Bad Week
Phil Jones: The United defender produced one of the moments of the season. We will never tire of seeing it.
Nigel Pearson: Sweet, sweet vindication for his continued employment as Leicester secured survival.
Jason Puncheon: Celebrated his new contract with another magisterial display—this time at Anfield.
Sadio Mane: His hat-trick will surely remain the Premier League's fastest forever.
James Milner: His well-taken goal and all-round display made a timely point as he heads toward free agency.
Aston Villa's players: With an FA Cup final place to play for, this is not the time to capitulate.
John Carver: If Newcastle stay up, it will have had nothing to do with anything good they did.
Brendan Rodgers: The circus around Steven Gerrard distracted from an awful, concerning home result.
Tyler Blackett: The sort of substitute appearance all defenders hope to never have.
Steve Bruce: First the Jake Livermore news, and then defeat. Hull's situation looks extremely bleak now.
Other Points of Note
United and Arsenal Reveal need for Improvement
With little to play for on the day, Manchester United's match against Arsenal on Sunday was billed as a first joust between two sides hoping to be title challengers next time around. If that is the case, then the somewhat anaemic nature of the match suggests both sides have work to do this summer to catch Chelsea—and presuming they rediscover their motivation, Manchester City.
United were the superior side for the majority of the 90 minutes, but their lack of cutting edge in front of goal was ultimately exposed, as Arsenal—who did not even have a shot on goal in the first 50 minutes—eventually clawed their way back to a point.
Theo Walcott's goal may have been extremely fortuitous—and actually an own goal, although Tyler Blackett knew little about it)—but the Gunners perhaps warranted their point, as they finished strongly to effectively clinch third place in the league.
It was Arsenal's first point at Old Trafford since 2009 and another encouraging step after an away win at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season. That alone won't be enough to pose a stronger challenge to Chelsea next term, however, and it will be interesting to see how Arsene Wenger strengthens a squad that has a spread of small deficiencies rather than an handful of glaring weaknesses.
For United, it is the opposite situation—there are obvious gaps, particularly in defence and attack—and perhaps that is why Van Gaal, especially with the money at his disposal, may fancy his chances of making the bigger strides this summer.
"That’s difficult to say because you don’t know how strong the teams will be next year," Wenger said when asked about next season's title hopes, per Arsenal's official website. "Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool will all be on the market so it’s difficult to know.
"I believe that we’ve come out of the season and we feel we have made progress in the Premier League compared to last season because we were consistent against the smaller teams then but this season we are stronger against the big teams. That’s a big platform to do better."
So Long, Steven Gerrard
After his amusingly antagonistic departure at Stamford Bridge—the most controversial leg of his long farewell tour—Steven Gerrard said his goodbyes at Anfield on Saturday with all the pomp and circumstance you would expect.
Sky Sports stayed pitchside long after the final whistle to cover every second of Gerrard's emotional goodbye, a memorable day punctured somewhat by a disappointing, but deserved, defeat to Crystal Palace.
Per Thomas Burrows of the Daily Mail, Gerrard said:
It felt very strange. I've been dreading this moment and I'm absolutely devastated I won't be playing in front of these supporters again. I have to save my last thank you to these supporters who stand out more than any of them.
The very first time I ran out in front of the Kop, I'll never forget that. The first time I played for Liverpool was a dream come true. Everything after that was a bonus.
I'd like to thank everyone at the club who's helped me over the last 17 years, from top to bottom. I'd like to thank all the staff who have helped me, and all the ex-players I've played alongside.
But most of all, I'd like to thank the fans. These supporters here stand out more than any. I've played in front of most supporters around the world, but you are the best.
It was far from Gerrard's finest game in a Liverpool shirt, something the player himself admitted, which only served to underline the fact his departure is coming at the right time for the player and, perhaps, the club as well.
Gerrard can now enjoy a new experience in the twilight of his career, while Liverpool can try and build a new dynasty not so heavily reliant on his individual brilliance. It was wonderful while it lasted, but the time for a change has definitely arrived.
Congratulations to All
And finally, a quickfire selection of a few of the champions crowned around Europe at the weekend: Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, Basel and Zenit Saint Petersburg. Congratulations to all, even if none of those are real surprises.