If there was any confirmation that this has been a down Premier League season, look no further to the Champions League race. Spurs are in, but by math only, as they’ve only taken two points from their last three games. Arsenal could, by the final day of the season, also still be in within a chance of failing to qualify. And Manchester City, who made the semi-finals of this year’s tournament, could well be out of next year’s dance if Manchester United win their final two games of the season. This will bring drama on the final day of the season, but none of these teams should have been in this position to begin with.
Spurs certainly looked like they would cruise to second at the very least, if not giving Leicester a longer run for the title. But as the weeks have passed, it finally looks as if Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing system has taken its toll on a team that looks physically and mentally tired. After those emotional games down the stretch of the campaign, and having lost both Mousa Dembele and Dele Alli to FA suspensions, they look as if they want the season to end, running the risk that they will finish behind their North London rivals. They have assured a Champions League place for next season, but that won’t be of any consolation to Spurs supporters who are feeling the nerves for the last day of the season that they really shouldn’t have to. They have the trickiest of all of the fixtures next Sunday away to Newcastle, who could be fighting for their Premier League lives. They only need a win or draw to secure second place, but there aren’t many Spurs supporters who are confident heading to St. James Park, and who could blame them?
Arsenal are unbeaten in their last nine games, coinciding with their typical end of season flourish. They are not mathematically in the Champions League yet, but they have all but assured themselves a spot. As they play Aston Villa on the final day, there should be no reason that Arsenal aren’t in the competition then, but even after a probable end of season demolition of another poor team, they will feel as if they’ve missed out on a golden chance to finally win that elusive title. Performances like Sunday’s against Manchester City flatter to deceive in a way because they did look their usual incisive selves at times yet at the other end look just as likely to be carved open. Finishing third but behind Spurs will not be a good look to end a season in which they could have done far more.
For Manchester City, the goodwill they accrued by taking Real Madrid to the brink in the Champions League has now vanished as they do not control their own destiny in the race for the top four. After their blazing fast start, and after topping the table for most of the fall, they have not been in the top two since losing to Leicester in the beginning of February and now cannot finish there. All the while, they have to wait and watch to see what their Manchester rivals do to see if they will once again control their own fate. As much as no one at the Etihad will admit it, the Pep Guardiola announcement has certainly hurt City down the stretch, especially in the league. Far too often they’ve been reliant on the brilliance of Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne to bail them out of situations when the rest of the team has not been nearly as impressive. Whether or not City make the Champions League, Pep Guardiola may well have a bigger job on his hands than expected when he takes over. Their match Sunday at resurgent Swansea will be an incredibly difficult test for a squad whose mental makeup is in the air.
And through all of the chaos above them, Manchester United are poised to potentially steal a Champions League spot away from their great rivals when it looked like that possibility was gone when they were blown away at White Hart Lane earlier in April. Most United supporters are still ambivalent on Van Gaal as manager, but if he walks away from this season with a Champions League berth and the FA Cup despite the internal turmoil, he’ll have made a very convincing argument to stay in the Old Trafford dugout. He’s found young players to fill the voids left by the senior players who have not been up to snuff, and now with two more wins against West Ham and Bournemouth, he’ll have taken what is still a broken squad to heights that many did not see coming. Whether the concerns about Van Gaal will be washed away or not is another story, but his club is in a prime position now to succeed when many predicted failure.
Many of the Premier League’s usual elite have fallen on hard times, and look no further to this “race” for the Champions League as proof positive of that. None of the positions behind Leicester are secured yet, and no one has played well enough to ensure confidence heading into the decisive final week of the season.
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