As another season marches inexorably towards its conclusion and we’re all reminded once again of our own stark mortality, spare a thought for those whose job it is to make Match Of The Day and Sky Sports’ live output somehow enticing for the casual viewer. Europe’s alleged ‘most entertaining league’ has firmly become single-issue after the goings on over the last month, with Manchester City having the title wrapped up, and the rest of the top four all but set in stone, it’s down to the three clubs that have looked condemned to relegation for weeks to somehow make the denouement of the 2017/18 season anything more than a month of glorified friendlies. Although there’s always the question of Manchester City breaking the all-time points record (ooooh!), or perhaps Mohammed Salah’s attempts to break the all-time goals in a season record (aaaah!) or the, erm, race for tenth? Still, for ninety minutes at least this weekend we all had the opportunity to block out the noise from that terrifying thing we call ‘the world’ and have our minds taken off the deportation of British citizens based on their skin colour, internet celebrities pushing for a platform for racists, and Britain’s Got Talent.
The first sacrificial lambs to this slaughter this weekend were Stoke City – three points adrift from safety and still looking for their first win since January, with leads thrown away against West Ham and Burnley looking like they might cost Paul Lambert dear come the end of the season. Their task? A trip to Anfield, and a meeting with a Liverpool side still swaggering after their crushing victory over Roma in the Champions League semi-final first leg on Tuesday. Jurgen Klopp has taken to resting one of his big three attacking players before European games in recent weeks, and this time out it was Saido Mane’s turn, with Danny Ings deputising. Trent Alexander Arnold was given a run out in midfield after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season ending injury in midweek, while Alberto Moreno and Ragnar Klavan were given rare outings in defence. All eyes were on Salah, just a goal away from becoming the all-time top scorer in a Premier League season, and when he raced through on goal in the early stages it looked odds on he was about to write his name in post-1992 folklore. As it was, the Egyptian chipped the ball wide and those in the stands and press box looked on aghast, as if they’d completely forgotten him spurning four chances a game in the early weeks of the season. Stoke weren’t there just to sit back and defend however, and Mame Biram Diouf should have done better with a header after good work from Moritz Bauer, but the Senegal forward failed to trouble Loris Karius. Salah continued to cause Stoke headaches, playing in Alexander-Arnold for a chance on goal, though the youngster could only scuff his effort straight at Jack Butland, before curling a freekick just wide of the post.
The second-half set the tone for much of the weekend’s action, played largely at walking pace with neither side seemingly desperate to win, despite Stoke’s current predicament. Lambert perhaps would have written off any chance of taking something from a visit to Anfield, so a goalless draw presented a welcome bonus to the ailing manager. Liverpool should have had a penalty when Erik Pieters appeared to bat Gini Wijnaldum’s cross away, while Ryan Shawcross will wonder what might have been had his considerable lumbar allowed him to connect with Diouf’s cross with the goal at his mercy. For the Reds, a top four place is all but secure and there’s a sizzling pan awaiting them in Rome on Wednesday, while Stoke must now focus all efforts on their remaining fixtures – both winnable, and both must-win – if they’re to maintain their Premier League status.
The big game in the 3 o’clock kick-offs centred on a south coast derby with an added kick of spice, as Southampton welcomed Bournemouth to St Mary’s in a game Saints simply had to win. With just one win since November, and Mark Hughes failing to win in his first four games after being parachuted in to replace Mauricio Pellegrino, time has been running out for Southampton for a while. With the final day visit of Manchester City looking an unenviable position in which to save their season, they essentially had three games in which to get themselves out of trouble, and Bournemouth offered ideal opponents. With the Cherries now all but safe from relegation, complacency has kicked in and two points from their last four games suggest a side who’ve been shopping for sunglasses in recent weeks. Both home players and home faithful looked up for it from the off, and after 25 minutes the first ray of light in months cracked the Solent sky. An aimless Bournemouth corner was cleared from the hosts penalty area, and Mario Lemina embarked on a lung-busting box to box run. With Saints’ breaking two-on-two, Lemina picked out Dusan Tadic, who emphatically buried the ball into the bottom corner to burst the bubble of tension in the stands. Lemina might have added a second minutes later with a fierce half-volley from the edge of the area, but Asmir Begovic was equal to it, and the visitors slowly began to grow into the game. Nathan Ake might have equalised after pirouetting his way through the Saints defence, but could only stab a weak effort at goal. With pressure mounting it was only a matter of time before Southampton were caught out, and on the stroke of half-time Josh King creeped in at the backpost to sidefoot a volley into the top corner.
With half-time pies eschewed for fingernails, Southampton emerged from the break back on the front-foot, showing far more desire to win than their casual visitors. Some dallying in midfield by Lewis Cook gifted possession to Tadic, and the Serb charged towards goal before producing a curling effort into the bottom corner to restore the lead for Hughes’ team. At that point Saints could have gone on to win the game comfortably, as first Charlie Austin and then Ryan Bertrand both had golden chances to put the result beyond doubt, but on both occasions they found Begovic equal to their efforts. Naturally the jitters began to creep around the stands and onto the pitch, and again Bournemouth grew into the game as the half wore on. Fortunately Alex McCarthy chose the right day to find some inspired form, thwarting Ryan Fraser after some tidy footwork from King and Jemain Defoe, and in the fourth minute of stoppage time, with St Mary’s hearts in mouths, McCarthy pulled off a stunning stop to deny Fraser once again after the Scottish winger’s effort had looped off a defender and looked destined for the top corner before the former Crystal Palace keeper clawed it away for a corner. The final whistle brought celebratory scenes from the home dugout, as Hughes finally bid farewell to the monkey on his back with a firm and frank handshake. Saints’ safety is still out of their own hands, but they could hardly have chosen a better time in the season to start winning.
In the other 3pm games Crystal Palace confirmed their participation in next season’s Premier League with a breathtaking victory over Leicester. Wilfred Zaha once again ran the show as the Eagles hit the Foxes for five, compounded by Marc Albrighton’s red card for a professional foul. Huddersfield Town’s relegation fears were further enhanced with a home defeat to Everton thanks to goals from Cenk Tosun and Idrissa Gueye, while elsewhere Burnley and Brighton played out the nillest of nil-nils at Turf Moor, and Darren Moore staked further claim to the West Brom job by maintaining the Baggies unbeaten run at Newcastle, Matt Phillips the winning goalscorer for the side at the bottom of the table.
Having seen Stoke and Southampton gain ground on them earlier in the day, Swansea’s game against Chelsea in the tea-time kick off soon took on a little more importance, with the Walians perhaps hoping to restore the cushion above the drop zone with a win against a side who swayed between dazzling and apathetic across the season. Last weekend’s comfortable FA Cup semi-final victory over Southampton was a far cry from the team that lost back to back games against Bournemouth and Watford back in January, but its difficult to watch this Chelsea side without seeing a team just waiting for the season to end. Olivier Giroud retained his place in the starting line-up after his Wembley wonder goal, while Emerson Palmieri was given a rare run out at left-back. If Swansea came into the game with focus and determination it certainly didn’t show, as with just four minutes gone some sloppy passing in midfield gifted the ball to Eden Hazard, and the Belgian wizard picked out Cesc Fabregas to deliver a delicious curling effort into the top corner. The Swans looked at sixes and sevens throughout the first half, and were lucky to go in just one goal behind as the crossbar prevented Alfie Mawson from putting through his own net.
Chelsea, through quality more than application, looked likeliest to add to the scoresheet in the early knockings of the second half, and Victor Moses should have done better when found by Fabregas, but could only divert the ball wide from six yards. Much of Swansea’s attacking play was kept away from the Chelsea penalty area, and the hosts soon found themselves resorting to long-range efforts, with Andre Ayew failing to trouble Thibaut Courtois with a 25 yard curler. The hosts solitary golden chance arrived late in the game as a clearance fell to the feet of Tom Carroll, but once again Courtois was left unemployed as the former Spurs man’s effort drifted wide. Carlos Carvalhal’s magic now seems to have well and truly worn off, with this defeat making it six games without a win for the Swans. A trip to Bournemouth next weekend perhaps offers a chance to keep the chasing pack at arms-length, before a crucial double header in the final week of the season against Southampton and Stoke.
Sunday’s double header kicked off with champions Manchester City paying a visit to the London Stadium, where tenants West Ham United were looking for the points to ensure a worry free end to the season. Due to the opposition David Moyes was allowed to drop Joe Hart for Adrian, while Patrice Evra was named in the starting line-up for the first time since the Hammers 4-1 defeat at Swansea at the beginning of March. Pep Guardiola could have been excused for trying out some of his fringe players and youth teamers with City’s main objective for the season sewn up, but if you want to be a record breaker, dedication’s what you need. A £390m team helps as well. It was apparent from the first whistle that City were in no mood to put their feet up for the summer just yet, and West Ham’s resistance was emphatically punctured after 13 minutes. Leroy Sane, picking the ball up on the right hand side, drifted inside before smashing a shot towards goal from 25 yards. Evra titled his head towards the ball, but his intervention only wrong-footed Adrian and sent the ball spinning into the net. Fifteen minutes later the visitors were two up, exploiting the generous amounts of space afforded by a creaking Hammers backline. Kevin De Bruyne found space to drill a shot across goal, and with no attacker close by it fell to Pablo Zabaleta to bundle the ball into his own net for his former club. Old habits die hard. As awful as West Ham were for the opening half, they managed to find a way back into the match minutes before the break. Ilkay Gundogan clumsily brought down Edmilson Fernandes on the edge of the area, and from the resulting free-kick Aaron Cresswell curled a shot into the near post to halve the deficit.
Any hopes of an unlikely Hammers comeback disappeared within ten minutes of the restart, as Raheem Sterling took the game by the scruff of the neck. First the wiry winger danced around the right hand side of the penalty area before laying the ball on a plate for Gabriel Jesus, who duly tiptoed past a defender before stabbing the ball into the bottom corner. Having generously offered the hosts a warning of the threat he posed, Sterling was then denied a stonewall penalty after a clumsy challenge from Cresswell was waved away by referee Neil Swarbrick, before breaking past the defence minutes later only to be thwarted by Adrian. Two minutes later the home side’s luck ran out, and after allowing Sterling room to roam on the right again, the England man rolled a pass into the path of Fernandinho, and the midfield enforcer had the simple task of sweeping home City’s fourth. Journalist and West Ham fan Lee Clayton’s reaction on Twitter summed the Hammers afternoon up “I don’t mind a guard of honour. City are a team who deserve it. What I don’t think I’ve ever seen is a guard of honour lasting 90 minutes.” Based on recent perfomances, the Hammers will be hoping that results go their way from now to the end of the season, because you wouldn’t trust them to get out of this mess themselves. Also a shout out to the consistent Evra – he’s started three games for West Ham and they’ve lost all three 4-1.
The 4pm game took us all the way back to 1999, when Manchester United v Arsenal was a fixture pivotal in deciding where the Premier League title would end up, and the match would be played in tempestuous conditions. Nowadays, much like Pele, the whole thing feels a little flaccid. There was a heartwarming presentation for Arsene Wenger by Sir Alex Ferguson pre-match, with the former rivals exchanging handshakes and pleasantries where once they traded insults and impudence. With both sides looking secure in their league positions – and Arsene gearing up for his final hurrah in Madrid on Thursday – little was anticipated in terms of excitement and full-bloodedness between two sides looking tired after a long and frustrating season. A much changed Arsenal side included a debut for Greek youngster Konstantinos Mavropanos, while Reiss Nelson was also handed a rare start. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez faced their former clubs for the first time having traded places in January, and in a frenetic opening to the game it was clear that both players were keen to get one over their former colleagues. Sanchez was involved in the first blow – meeting Romelu Lukaku’s cross with a sidefoot volley that crashed off the post, only for Paul Pogba to follow up and give United the lead. Mkhitaryan was at the forefront of every Arsenal attack, but the effort he dragged wide midway through the first half suggested a long afternoon was in store for the Armenian. At the other end, Ashley Young took full advantage of facing a goal containing David Ospina by overhitting and cross and seeing what happens, though the Colombian was able to watch the ball crash off the post and away from danger.
Having gotten his eye in throughout the first half, Mkhitaryan continues his one-man vendetta against the hosts in the second, charging purposefully towards goal at every opportunity. Six minutes after the break his efforts were finally rewarded, as Chris Smalling backed away from his latest surge, before the former Dortmund man sliced a shot into the bottom corner to level the scores. Needless to say, he celebrated with vigour. With the scores level on the hour, Mourinho turned to Plan D and introduced Marouane Fellaini into the fray. Then things got quite agricultural. United proceeded to bombard the Arsenal box with high balls in the hope of the Belgian beanpole flinging his be-afroed bonce into the path of one, while the Gunners resorted to kick and rush in order to relieve the pressure. Stoppage time finally brought Mourinho his reward, as Young’s cross was met by Fellaini’s crown, and the ball bounced over the reach of Ospina to secure all three points for Manchester United. An entertaining game, in a way. Like if you let loose a herd of newborn foals at the Chelsea Flower Show.
The weekend’s action concluded at Wembley, with Tottenham Hotspur facing a Watford side that have been on the beach for so long their skin’s gone all leathery. Under Javi Gracia, the Hornets have recorded just three wins since the turn of the year, and arrived at the future Jacksonville Jaguars stadium hoping to end a run of six games without a win. With little riding on the result, much of the focus centred on Harry Kane’s ailing bid to win the golden boot, finding himself five goals behind Mo Salah with two extra games to play. Naturally, England’s saviour made it his evening’s mission of adding to that tally, though a weak early effort that rolled into the arms of Orestis Karnezis suggested it might not go all his own way. A sparsely filled Wembley were treated to an early goal however, when Kieran Trippier’s cross was spilled by Watford’s stopper, and Christian Eriksen was quickest to react, nudging the ball into the path of Dele Alli, who had the simple task of drilling into an empty net. Watford then grew into the game as Spurs took it upon themselves to lose concentration for twenty minutes, and Kiko Fermina’s slide-rule pass to Andre Gray left Hugo Lloris as the last line of defence, and Tottenham’s #1 got down well to save. More sloppy play from the home side then allowed Watford to break at pace, and Gray picked out Richarlison bearing down on goal, but again Lloris was equal to the effort.
The game, arguably over as a spectacle before it had begun, was ended as a contest within minutes of the restart. Son Heung-Min’s cross into the box zipped behind the run of Kane, but Trippier picked the loose ball up and fired it back into the area where Kane was waiting for a simple tap-in to score his 27th league goal of the season. Jan Vertonghen could have added a rare goal had his header landed an inch or two further inside the post from another Trippier cross, while Richarlison should have halved the deficit after Troy Deeney cushioned a header into his path, but the Brazilian blazed over from point blank range. Ultimately the result meant little for either team – Spurs may have been looking over their shoulder at Chelsea, though realistically they were always likely to sew up the fourth Champions League place, while Watford have been safe from relegation for months. It makes you wonder who the hell chooses these fixtures to televise.