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Man City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal: Premier League season suspended on final day


From the perspective of its ending, there is something strange and distant – almost alien – about the start of a season. Only 10 months ago, after all, barely a blink of an eye, and yet the beliefs, convictions and truths of the time now seem as archaic as the idea we once thought you could see the future in the entrails of a goat, or that people wore pagers.

For example, it has not been a year since Nuno Espirito Santo was chosen as Premier League coach of the month for his debut at the helm of Tottenham Hotspur. Likewise, the idea that Romelu Lukaku ‘completes’ the Chelsea squad, or that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could offer Manchester United a title, or that running a repressive autocracy should prevent you from owning a Premier League team could all as well belong to a different world.

It may not look like it, but it all happened in the same Premier League season which ends on Sunday. And while these issues have been resolved, countless others have not. As much as we have traveled, as much as we have learned, very little has yet been decided. There is still no crowned champion, no full list of qualified teams for Europe, no conclusion to the relegation battle. A season can seem to last a lifetime. This time around, it all comes down to one game.

Above all, Pep Guardiola wants his players to be relaxed. Following Manchester City’s draw at West Ham last weekend – one that effectively guaranteed the Premier League champion’s identity would be decided on the final day of the season – he hasn’t, as one might have Predictably, transported his team for more work.

Instead, with the club’s season now suspended to just one game, he gave them extra time out. The whole team was given two days off, a chance to rest, recuperate and escape the pressure. Ilkay Gundogan left to get married.

Guardiola is of course right to identify that the ordeal that awaits City is above all psychological. Under ordinary circumstances, he would easily send Aston Villa into his territory: a few quick, early goals, a brutal display of superiority, an imperious walk down the line. The challenge this weekend is to make the circumstances as mundane as possible.

It turns out City have no margin for error. The 14-point advantage over Liverpool he held in January has been reduced to just one. City have had several chances to settle the matter in recent weeks – Riyad Mahrez may have beaten Liverpool in early April; he might have beaten West Ham too – but he failed to take them. Now, if Guardiola’s side stumble again and Liverpool beat Wolves, the title will go to Anfield.

Teams have been in this position before, of course: in 2019 they also entered the final day separated by a single point.

At Anfield that day, a loud roar erupted as news leaked that Brighton had taken a first-half lead against visiting City. On the sidelines, Jürgen Klopp knew it was “too early”. City duly fought back, emphatically – winning the game 4-1 and claiming their second title in a row. The ‘intense pride’ felt by Klopp was only tempered by the fact that his team had collected 97 points and it still wasn’t enough.

Things are a little different this time. Liverpool have already won two trophies this season, sweeping both the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup. Just like in 2019, a Champions League final is also on the horizon.

More importantly, perhaps, his aspiration for a national title is no longer so desperate. He ended his three-decade wait for a championship amid the ominous silence of pandemic football in 2020. Klopp and his players are more circumspect than they could be in 2019.

City’s task is complicated not so much by the nature of their opponent, but by the identity of Guardiola’s counterpart. It may just be a coincidence that it is Steven Gerrard who has the last chance to push Liverpool over the line, but football is hardly a coincidence. Villa also have two former Liverpool players – Danny Ings and, in particular, Philippe Coutinho – in their ranks. Much has been said about narrative determinism on Merseyside over the past week.

It’s City’s great strength, of course, that they rarely succumb to such superstition. That’s more than enough to rule out Villa, whatever Gerrard’s intentions and motives. Guardiola is well aware, however, that his side will need to be relaxed to do so. No matter how good this City team is, if the result hangs in the balance with 10, 20 or 30 minutes to go on Sunday, nerves will start to tear.

Of all the issues still to be resolved, the battle for the Champions League places next season is perhaps the simplest. In theory, anyway, the identity of the fourth English side to qualify for next season’s Champions League was set 10 days ago, when Tottenham beat bitter rivals Arsenal in the Premier League derby. North London.

That win – followed by a win over Burnley three days later and Arsenal’s defeat at Newcastle on Monday – saw Spurs leapfrog Mikel Arteta’s side. It also means Tottenham go into the final day with a two-point advantage and a vastly superior goal difference. Simply avoiding defeat in their last game would be enough to ensure their safe return to Europe’s top flight and condemn Arsenal to another year away from home.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask: Antonio Conte’s Tottenham take on long-relegated Norwich City, proud owners of just one league win since January. The result of Arsenal’s recall, at home to Everton, shouldn’t be relevant. (The row over the last Europa League spot is almost a mirror image: West Ham will snatch this from Manchester United if they overcome Brighton and United fail to beat Crystal Palace.)

For Arsenal and Spurs, the immediate future depends on which side of this division they finish. Once a Champions League stalwart, Arsenal have not featured in the competition since 2017. The club intend to offer Arteta considerable financial backing in the transfer market this summer, regardless of location where the team ends up, but what options they will have for how to spend. this money will be defined according to whether it is in the Champions League or not.

Spurs’ absence is much shorter – a finalist in 2019, he only missed two years – but his return is no less significant. A Champions League spot might be enough to convince his wayward coach Conte to stay, not least because it would give him greater freedom to bolster his resources. It could also avert another summer dominated by doubts about where, precisely, Harry Kane sees his future.

There’s a photo of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, shirtless and smiling smugly, that pretty much sums it all up. He stands on the grounds of Goodison Park, surrounded by fans and police, billowing smoke billowing above his head. His eyes fix the camera. It is an image of pure and simple salvation.

At half-time on Thursday, Everton looked doomed. They were losing at home to Crystal Palace, and the possibility of the club’s first relegation in nearly a century grew ever closer. And then, within 45 minutes, Frank Lampard’s team performed a lifesaving act that quickens the pulse. A goal. Another. Then, with five minutes to go, Calvert-Lewin launched his body into a cross and headed the winner. Everton had pushed him until the last moment, but he had survived.

As fans flocked to the Goodison Park pitch, swarming their heroes and, in at least one incident, enjoying their moment of euphoria to unnecessarily upset Patrick Vieira, the Palace coach, the relegation battle has been reduced to two. Watford and Norwich are off to the Championship next season. One from Leeds United and Burnley will join them.

The probability is that it will be Leeds. She heads to Brentford, a place she hasn’t won since rationing ended in the 1950s. Leeds must realistically win and hope Burnley lose at home to a Newcastle side who have since long fulfilled his ambition for the season.

The reason is important. Leeds’ form has turned around, just a bit, since Jesse Marsch was installed as manager – replacing beloved Marcelo Bielsa – at the end of February. Marsch has won three and drawn three of its 11 games, and three of its five losses have come against top-six teams. The other two came in his first two games.

It is the nature of football, however, that it will be seen as Marsch’s fault if Leeds return to the Championship after two years in the English top flight, if the return to the top flight the club have spent 16 years dreaming of s turns out to be nothing but a fleeting visit. This is the nature of management; the cruelty of the latter explains the salary.

And yet, if Leeds are demoted, the determining factor will not have been their form under Marsch but their permeability in the final days of the Bielsa regime. Bielsa has lost its last four games by an aggregate score of 15-0. In the space of four days in December, Leeds conceded 11 goals. His vulnerability, since then, has been his goal difference. That’s why it’s effectively one point behind Burnley even though they’re level on points. It is, more than anything, what leaves Leeds United on the brink once again, leaning on nothing but hope for salvation.



nytimes Eur

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