The penultimate weekend of Premier League action brought promise of resolution for some of this season’s most pressing issues. Among them was the FIGHT to become the best of the worst, along with the TUSSLE for mid-table mediocrity. Would Manchester City break any and all available records? Could Manchester United secure that second place that their fans so desperately crave? And perhaps most importantly, will there be anything at all for Sky to build up on the final day in order to justify their hefty subscription fees?
On a more serious note, however, it was a key weekend for those sides looking to finally drag themselves clear of the dreaded dogfight, while others were hoping for a foreign object to be tossed their way as means of making an escape. That’s right, it’s a ReLeGaTIon sPEciaL!
A rare Friday night kick-off offered a game of very little consequence as Brighton, all but safe, faced Manchester United, who held a five point lead over the chasing pack at start of play. Much was made of Brighton’s tough run in but, having taken two points from tricky games against Tottenham and Burnley, they flew out of the traps against Jose Mourinho’s side, looking to rubber stamp their Premier League status. Having taken aim at David De Gea’s goal twice in the first half through Glenn Murray and Jose Izquierdo, it was a scrambled effort from Pascal Groß in the 57th minute that won them the game. That defeat meant that, for the first time since the 1989/90 season, Manchester United had lost to all three promoted teams in the same season – a stat that goes someway to explaining why Mourinho’s men got nowhere near their title winning neighbours.
Saturday’s action kicked off in the Potteries, where Stoke City’s task was simple – win or bust. The good news was that Paul Lambert and co. would be playing host to Crystal Palace who, having lost the first seven games of the season without scoring, could be forgiven for sliding the knock-off RayBans on and flicking through a Thomas Cook brochure after their five goal blitz of Leicester City last weekend all but secured their safety. Saying that, though, Palace came into the game sat in 8th in the form table, and until mathematically safe there was always a chance Roy’s Boys would give the Potters a game. Indeed, Ruben Loftus-Cheek gave the home support a heart-in-mouth moment midway through the first half when aiming a shot towards the top corner that narrowly sailed over. The hosts spent much of the opening forty-five on the front foot, however, and Mame Biram Diouf should have opened the scoring from Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross, but the Senegalese’s connection was poor, and his header flew wide. Two minutes before the break, however, the Potters had the lead. Loftus-Cheek’s clumsy lunge on Shaqiri saw Stoke awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box, and the Swiss NutriBullet impersonator dusted himself off before curling an effort into the top corner. The life support machine continued to beep.
Rather than sit on their lead, Stoke looked to wrap up the points in the second half and their naïvety was duly punished. Ramadan Sobhi lost possession on the edge of the Palace penalty area, and the Eagles flew forward three on two. Wilfried Zaha was at the forefront of the visitors attack and he began the move that led to Loftus-Cheek picking out the overlapping run of James McArthur. The former Wigan midfielder then took one touch to steady himself before sliding a shot into the far corner to bring Palace level. From then on Stoke were forced onto the attack, but rather than put pressure on the visitor’s backline, a lack of creativity led to them being caught out at the back time and time again. Zaha should have put Palace into the lead when Andros Townsend picked him out with a cut-back, only for his effort to balloon over the bar, but when the hosts were caught in possession heading into the final five minutes, Palace found themselves three on two again. This time Zaha’s square ball was intercepted by Ryan Shawcross, but the Stoke captain could only divert the ball into the path of Patrick Van Aanholt who cooly slotted past Jack Butland. That took the wind out of Stoke’s sails, and despite the gift of four minutes of stoppage time, Lambert’s side were unable to find a winner, and their ten year stay in the Premier League came to an end. For a squad that boasted the talents of Butland, Shaqiri, Kurt Zouma and Joe Allen, Stoke should never really have been in trouble, but perhaps the failure to replace their main goal threat in Marko Arnautovic last summer was the catalyst for a staggering fall from grace. Whatever happens in the future, Stoke will forever be remembered as the side that introduced the throw-in as a viable offensive tactic, and constantly booed a player for having his leg broken.
Back in the land of the living, the last Saturday 3pm slot of the season brought a pair of games involving two sides at either end of the relegation spectrum. Swansea City, who started the day tiptoeing the dotted line, headed to Bournemouth in the hope of turning around a recent slump that has seen them drop to the foot of the form table. Sat just above them, on goal difference, were the Cherries, who’ve spent much of the season milling around outside of the relegation picture, but looking slightly too uncomfortable to fully pop their heads in and say hello. Any lingering questions regarding their top flight future would be put to bed with a home win. With just two goals in their last six games, the Swans’ early season scoring problems look to have come back to haunt them, and a lack of incisiveness prevented them taking the lead at Dean Court early on when Mike Van Der Hoorn connected with a knock down to fire towards goal, only for Asmir Begovic to propel the ball away, and depsite working space for Nathan Dyer on the follow up, the big Bosnian keeper was quick off the mark to thwart the visitors. With the game drifting towards half-time referee Kevin Friend was forced into a decision as Alfie Mawson bundled Josh King over, with the whistler eventually awarded Bournemouth a free-kick inches outside the penalty area. Rather than aim a shot at goal, Andrew Surman rolled the ball across the edge of the area in a move straight off the training ground, and Ryan Fraser latched onto it before curling an effort past Lukasz Fabianski. Swansea still had an opportunity to level the scores before half-time, but Jordan Ayew blazed wide after playing a one-two with brother Andre.
Ayew had an opportunity to atone for that miss early in the second half when Dyer chested the ball into his path, but the Ghanaian’s dipping volley was dealt with by Begovic. With Swansea pushing forwards for an equaliser they, like Stoke, found themselves susceptible to a counter attack, and Bournemouth should have wrapped the points up when they caught the Swans in possession. Fraser, having delivered another impressive display, surged forwards once again and found King on the left hand side of the area, and the Norwegian’s first time cross invited Callum Wilson to tap in and double the hosts lead. Fortunately for Carlos Carvalhal and his team, Fabianski was on his toes and reacted quickest to block Wilson’s effort and keep Swansea in the game. For all the Polish ‘keeper’s heroics, however, the visitors were unable to find a riposte, and another defeat left them heading into their final two games of the season needing at least one win to guarantee survival. Fortunately the fixture list has been kind, and two home fixtures against fellow strugglers Southampton and now-relegated Stoke mean they may find a late reprieve.
Up in the West Midlands, Darren Moore’s escapology act reached its latest challenge as Tottenham Hotspur arrived at the Hawthorns hoping to end West Brom’s spell in the Premier League once and for all. Having beaten Manchester United and Newcastle away and taken points at home to Swansea and Liverpool, Moore had already amassed more points as West Brom manager in four games than Alan Pardew managed across eighteen. Even so, anything but a win against fourth-placed Spurs would mean curtains. Rather than come out all guns blazing and leaving gaps for the opposition to attack, the Baggies clearly came into the game with a plan, concentrating on keeping the middle of the pitch compact, while allowing Spurs time on the ball in wide positions, and playing the percentages. In the first half Ben Foster was only called into action twice – though on both occasions he was forced to produce stunning saves in order to deny Victor Wanyama from distance, and Harry Kane from ten yards out after good work from Kieran Trippier. At the other end, Jay Rodriguez did well to win a corner after turning an overhit long ball back across the face of goal and leaving Toby Alderweireld little choice but to head over his own crossbar, and from the resulting dead ball Ahmed Hegazi saw his header drift wide.
West Brom’s Alamo act continued into the second half, where once again Foster was called upon a couple of times in order to see off any danger that penetrated the Baggies’ defensive forcefield, and the former England keeper was quick off his line to smother a chance for Erik Lamela, before punching Christian Eriksen’s free-kick out of harm’s way. After 75 minutes of rearguard action, and the visitors beginning to wilt in the sunshine, the Baggies then went on the attack and quickly gave Spurs a few hair-raising moments. First Harry Kane had his goalkeeper to thank for preventing an own goal after Rodriguez had headed a free-kick into the six yard box, and the Tottenham striker had inadvertently sent a volley towards the top corner, before a succession of corners put more and more pressure on Hugo Lloris’ goal as the clock ticked past ninety minutes. With Spurs withstanding the pressure, the Baggies found themselves in last chance saloon, as Matt Phillips swung one final corner into the penalty area. This time Craig Dawson was able to head it back across goal, and Chris Brunt’s lunge at the ball led to a goalmouth scramble, ended seconds later when Jake Livermore forced the ball over the line to win the game at the death. Darren Moore remains undefeated and, for a couple of hours at least West Brom would remain a Premier League team, with the possibility of taking their fight to the final day. Not bad for a side who were all but relegated by the beginning of March.
In Saturday afternoon’s less important fixtures, both Leicester City and Newcastle United continued their saunter towards the golden sands, succumbing to defeat at home to West Ham and away at Watford respectively. All four will be hoping for slightly better seasons next time out.
Saturday’s tea-time kick-off might not have promised the most entertaining of games, but unlike most of the TV picks this weekend, it did at least have something riding on it as The Gravy met The Gammon at Goodison Park. Last weekend’s victory for Southampton gave Mark Hughes and his team renewed hope of beating the drop, and a result at Everton would see the Saints move out of the relegation zone for the first time since the 10th March. Having seen his 3-4-3 formation work so well against Bournemouth, Hughes opted for a slightly more defensive 3-4-2-1, as Nathan Redmond dropped to the bench for Pierre-Emile Hojberg. That emphasis on defence led to a stale first half with few chances for either side, as Tom Davies and Charlie Austin both attempted long range efforts, with only Jordan Pickford forced into a save.
The game was lit up in the second half thanks to the introduction of Redmond for the pedestrian looking Mario Lemina – the kind of player who has characterised Southampton’s season; bags of talent, but often lacking application. It was Redmond that broke the deadlock ten minutes into the second half after good work from Dusan Tadic and Cedric Soares, and the Portuguese full-back picked out a cross for Redmond to head between Pickford’s legs and give Saints the lead with his first goal of the season. Pep Guardiola undoubtedly greeted the goal with a round of applause and some rabid shouting. With Everton offering up some textbook Allardyce fare it looked like only one team would add to the scoreline, and Phil Jagielka almost doubled the visitors lead when attempting to clear Ryan Betrand’s cross, narrowly heading over. With tension in the away end beginning to filter onto the pitch, Maya Yoshida did his side no favours by picking up a second yellow card after clattering Oumar Niasse, and Saints began to cling on in the final ten minutes of the game. Redmond might have eased those nerves after zigzagging his way through the Everton defence, but could only fire straight at Pickford, and when the winger was adjudged to have fouled an Everton defender in the fifth minute of stoppage time, it looked as though Saints would just have to repel one final surge towards their goal. Alex McCarthy managed to palm a cross into the box away from danger, but as Bertrand attempted to prevent a throw-in he could only clear as far as Idrissa Gueye. The midfielder took two long strides towards goal before his square ball was met with a first time shot from Tom Davies, and the youngster’s effort took a crucial deflection of Wesley Hoedt to leave McCarthy wrong-footed and earn Everton a last-gasp equaliser. A cruel blow for Saints, but their destiny is in their own hands – a win at Swansea on Tuesday night could make them practically safe.
The other side still very much involved in the relegation picture travelled to the home of the Champions on Sunday afternoon, in hope more than expectation of easing their fears of the drop. When Manchester City travelled to the John Smith Stadium back in November, Huddersfield Town were comfortably midtable, but a run of two wins in nine since February, coupled with a tricky run of fixtures to end the season, has left David Wagner’s team right in the mix. While there won’t be many better times to face City this season, a strong line-up from Guardiola suggested that he’s still hoping to see his team enter the Premier League record books for most goals – they came into this one just one goal shy of Chelsea’s total from 2009/10; most points – two behind Chelsea’s 2004/05 effort of 95; and most wins – level pegging with Chelsea from last season. The opportunity to kill three birds with one stone would surely have appealed to Pep. Unsurprisingly, City started off on the front foot, and it took strong hands from Jonas Lossl to prevent David Silva opening the scoring after the Spaniard had capitalised on a lucky bounce to fire at goal. Huddersfield, though, soon showed that they hadn’t just made the trip across the Pennines to defend, and as the half wore on David Wagner’s side grew into the game. A cleverly worked free-kick gave the Scrabble player’s wet dream Florent Hadergjonaj a sight at goal, but the Swiss’ effort was weak and Ederson gathered easily. The Brazilian stopper was somewhat more taxed a few minutes later when Alex Pritchard took aim from 25 yards, and his ripsnorter of an effort required tipping round the post.
The game slowly drifted in the second half as Manchester City took control, but were content with taking aim from distance rather than attempt to work their way through the Terriers stubborn defence. In fact when the Town goal did look threatened, it was due to a defensive mix-up as Lossl punched a corner into the chest of full-back Matthias Jorgensen, but Chris Schindler was able to sweep up on the line. 81% possession but 0 shots on target told the story of the second half from City’s view, as Bernardo Silva’s effort from the edge of the box represented their best opportunity, but drifted harmlessly wide. A result with little relevance for the Champions, who were presented with the Premier League trophy at full time – they still require one goal and one win from their final two games to break those aforementioned records, and Brighton’s visit to the Etihad in midweek will surely present the perfect opportunity. For Huddersfield, the result not only added a much needed point to their tally, but also provided a confidence boost heading into the last week of the season. Wagner’s team became the first side in the Premier League this season to prevent City from scoring at home, which is no mean feat, and now have a three point cushion over Swansea and the relegation zone. The final day visit of Arsenal, a team yet to win a point on the road in 2018, could arrive at the perfect time.
Speaking of Arsenal, the Gunners held an emotional tribute to manager Arsene Wenger in the Sunday afternoon double header, as the Frenchman bid adieu to the Emirates Stadium in his final home game as boss. With visitors Burnley having guaranteed Europa League football next season, there was still a chance of leapfrogging Arsenal into sixth place, but an emphatic home display provided a fitting farewell to the Gaffer. Two goals for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and one each for Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi and Sead Kolasinac secured a 5-0 victory for Wenger – the perfect leaving present. Across London, Chelsea met Liverpool hoping to keep their top four aspirations alive going into the final week of the season, and Olivier Giroud’s first half goal did just that. Liverpool, looking somewhat jaded from their Champions League exploits, will need a win at home to Brighton on the final day to guarantee their place in the competition next season.
So after 364 games, 975 goals, 1,125 yellow cards and 38 reds, 329,736 passes, and 472,080 touches of a football the 2017/18 season comes down to its final week. The relegation issue may be someway decided by Sunday’s final set of fixtures, as Swansea meet Southampton on Tuesday night – a win for either side would relegate West Brom, while plunging the other into serious trouble – and Chelsea and Spurs both have winnable home fixtures that could put pressure on Liverpool’s Champions League hopes come the final day. Somehow, against all the odds, there’s still something to play for.