We preview the Premier League Midweek fixtures as Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur prepare to play the penultimate matches of their league campaign.
RACE FOR TOP FOUR GOING DOWN THE WIRE
With both ends of the table sorted out last weekend, there’s not much to look forward to in the final week of the Premier League. However, fans of three clubs, in particular, may hold a different view of the situation. The two Champions League spots are still there for the taking for which Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal are desperately vying. With Manchester United suffering a second league defeat on the bounce at White Hart Lane, the doors to Europe via a top four finish have officially shut down for the Red Devils. 76 points are what seems to be the magic figure to secure one of those coveted European spots.
As it stands, Liverpool have one game left to play and have 73 points to their credit. With a haul of 72 and 69 points respectively, both the Citizens and the Gunners have two games in hand themselves. Interestingly, each of the top four aspirants have a favourable set of fixture(s) to negotiate through versus teams which have nothing to play for right now. If each of them wins their remaining matches, it will be Manchester City and Liverpool who would secure a Champions League berth whereas Arsene Wenger will miss out on a spot in Europe’s elite football competition for the first time in two decades. City, in all fairness, should moonwalk to a third-place finish as their final two games are against sides who have totally forgotten the art of scoring goals in recent weeks.
Coming to Liverpool, they should get the job done too after a sizzling win over West Ham United. But with the Reds’ well-documented struggles to break through the bottom-half teams this term, the Londoners still hold a slight glimmer of hope to rescue their proud record. The Gunners also need to make sure they also win their remaining home matches against Sunderland and Everton if they want to give themselves a chance. Another important factor in deciding this rat race will also be how Middlesbrough lines up at Anfield on Sunday. With relegation already confirmed, caretaker manager Steve Agnew may opt to field fringe players. Middlesbrough finds themselves in a truly awkward situation where they hold the key to the fortunes of two clubs. This battle for a top four finish is going all the way down the wire.
AN EFL CUP FINAL REMATCH THAT THREATENS TO BE A DOUR AFFAIR
It was two-and-a-half months ago when these two sides toiled hard at Wembley to claim this season’s first major piece of silverware. The high-intensity battle was decided by a moment of brilliance from Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a day when the game could have easily swung the other way. Since then, both clubs have won just four league matches and as they prepare to face off on Wednesday night, it threatens to be a dour affair at St. Mary’s instead of one being full verve. Jose Mourinho has clearly thrown the towel in Premier League and this comment made by him post the Spurs match may not go down well with some of the United faithful.
“The Premier League for us at this moment is just a group of matches we don’t want to play.”
A somewhat similar situation is what Claude Puel finds himself in as well. Although the Saints aren’t in the running to win other competitions, the Southampton boss seems to be content with where his team stands at the moment with survival already assured. And the fact was verified by his team selection against Boro last Saturday when he made seven changes to the eleven that started in the midweek defeat to Arsenal, including handing a club debut to former Barcelona and Juventus defender Martin Caceres.
Manolo Gabbiadini, the south coast club’s star performer in the Wembley showpiece, wasn’t even included in the matchday squad. With both managers looking keen to experiment in the final few games of the campaign, the tie might not have the necessary fervour to make it watchable enough.
THE CONTRASTING TRAJECTORIES OF TWO SIDES
When Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur met in the corresponding fixture at the King Power last season, no one would have thought they would go on to change the complexion of the English game in the months that followed. They were the two prime title contenders for much of the last campaign but it was the Foxes who rose to global prominence by marching onto a maiden top-flight title. Spurs too earned rave reviews for their refreshing brand of football under Mauricio Pochettino but unfortunately, the season ended in a hysterical manner for the North London club as they suffered a shock 5-1 defeat at Newcastle United. The consequence of the result was an absolute disaster as Spurs blew up both the chance to finish as runners-up in the Premier League for the first time and also the chance to finish above Arsenal for the first time.
A year on, the clubs have certainly tread opposite directions. Although neither side was expected to repeat those marvellous feats of the last term this time around, Spurs have certainly gone on to defy the odds for the second season running. Despite boasting a wage bill worth £120mn that costs £80mn less than that of arch-rivals Arsenal and £100mn cheaper compared to that of the Manchester clubs, the Lillywhites have shown money doesn’t warrant success. Though the return to Champions League wasn’t a memorable one, Spurs’ growing stature in the Premier League shows with more experience in the bag, the European ventures may last long and should reap more success in the years to come.
As for the reigning champions, they have regressed this season. Claudio Ranieri’s return to type and a more negative mindset right from the start of the season rang the disaster bells for Italian and the 65-year-old ultimately paid for it by getting sacked. Though his sidekick Craig Shakespeare has salvaged a disastrous campaign that threatened to turn into a nightmare at one point, the fact that the fairytale couldn’t continue has left everyone disappointed who expected Leicester to go a step further by upstaging the European powerhouses and establish themselves as a force to reckon with, similar to what Atletico Madrid did under Diego Simeone. Leicester City might have got the coveted title but Tottenham Hotspur would feel they had the last laugh at the end.