The latest international break is complete. England aren’t in action again until they face the Netherlands in the Semi-Final of the first ever Nations League this summer. We can now focus on what is going to be the most dramatic end to a Premier League campaign we’ve seen in years. Liverpool and Manchester City continue to cancel each other out whilst the battle for top 4 spots is everchanging.
Before we focus on the unpredictability of the league summit, however, let’s look at the bottom where things seem to be more set in stone. The return of domestic football has brought with it the inevitable fates of both Fulham and Huddersfield. These two sides have been preparing for life in the Championship for a while now, their latest results only securing what was already known. Huddersfield were finally relegated after suffering a 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, a side who, unlike their opponents, look to be all but safe. Fulham also failed to put up much of a fight when they faced a trip to Watford. The scoreline was level going into the second half but the visitors suffered a 12 minute collapse, in which time Watford found the net on three occasions. They ran out as comfortable 4-1 winners. Results like this in the Premier League and their recent comeback against Wolves in the FA Cup Semi-Final, go some way in displaying how this really has been one of their best ever top tier seasons. The same certainly can’t be said for our two relegated sides. Any team that faces the drop will always be one of the favourites for promotion in the following season, but it’s not that simple for Fulham or Huddersfield. Both teams have been way off the pace in the Premier League. When you think about some of the sides towards the top of the Championship, it becomes clear that they will be up against some tough competition. This combined with the fact that they are bound to lose some key players, hints to what could be a very difficult season. Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon and Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy, for example, are both unlikely to want to stay put and very likely to attract the attention of some top flight sides.
Two of the relegation spots have already been decided but when it comes to third and fourth place, anything could happen. A weekend off will have been welcomed with open arms by Manchester United, after they suffered their second defeat to Wolves in a matter of weeks. This was just one of a few results which have brought about some discussion surrounding the new boss, whose efforts have been rewarded with a three year contract. However, was this the right decision? It’s blatantly clear that Solskjaer’s appointment has resulted in a major improvement to what we saw under Mourinho. The players have much more freedom and that has been signified by Solskjaer’s record which, despite some disappointing results in recent times, is still very impressive. Him receiving any sort of criticism from pundits and even fans of the club, is ridiculous. It shows just how demanding spectators have become; significant short term success has to be seen if managers wish to have any chance of keeping their jobs in the long run. United are a mere two points outside a top 4 spot, a position which looked a million miles away when Mourinho was in charge. Solskjaer has set very high expectations of himself during his short time in charge and because he’s dipped slightly below those lately, he’s now apparently not the right man for the job? Astonishing. Sir Alex Ferguson, regarded by many as the greatest manage to ever grace the game, was appointed as Manchester United boss in 1986. He did not win his first league title until 1993 but went on to win 12 more during his time in charge. Had football been the same back then as it is now, Ferguson would probably have been dismissed way before his first league success. Had this happened, there’s every chance United could have missed out on extensive this period of dominance. I’m not saying Solskjaer should be allowed to go trophyless for 7 years. United are a huge club with vast financial backing and top class players. Trophies are an expectation, and rightly so. But Solskjaer hasn’t even had the opportunity to add any players to his squad. A few individuals, particularly at the back, aren’t and haven’t been good enough for a long time now. They’ve had the wisdom of top managers like Ferguson and Mourinho but have still failed to make any real improvement. Solskjaer has to be allowed the time to replace the weak players and instil his philosophy into a new look squad. A Champions League spot should be viewed as a bonus rather than a make or break expectation given how little time he’s had at the club and the sorry state they were in when he took over.
This recent dip in form for United, will come as music to the ears of competitors like Chelsea and Arsenal. However, they are not necessarily taking advantage as effectively as they could be. This might be somewhat surprising to hear from a Chelsea perspective. Sarri’s men have won their last two games, their latest being a dominant 3-0 victory over FA Cup Semi-finalists, Brighton. The game before this saw Chelsea face a trip to Cardiff, who are on the brink of relegation. It took the introduction of a few key men and two late goals in order for Chelsea to claim all three points. Prior to Hazard and Loftus-Cheek making an entrance, the Blues created very little in front of goal. They went 1-0 down and looked like they’d get nothing from the game, let alone a victory. Azpilicueta scored a rare goal to equalise, which, upon later inspection, was clearly some way offside. Loftus-Cheek found the winner just minutes later in a game which really should have ended all square. Yes, Chelsea did get the win but it wasn’t a performance that will fill the fans with confidence. They are yet to play the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United in what will be extremely tough games. Even their easier matches include Burnley, who now look to be back to their old selves, and Watford, who have been impressive all season and just secured a place in the FA Cup final; none of which will be guaranteed victories. Arsenal probably have the easiest run between now and the end of the season. However, they too face Watford along with trips to both Wolves and Leicester, three matches which could prove to be tricky. That’s if their latest match against Everton is anything to go by. It’s hard to say whether Everton were very good or if Arsenal were just poor; we’ll put it down to a mixture of both. A 1-0 loss to an Everton side who have massively improved recently may not seem atrocious, but anyone who watched the game would agree that Arsenal were well beaten. It’s hard to remember the Gunners even having a clear chance on goal, the best probably coming in the opening minutes when Lacazette was played in behind Jagielka. For Everton, on the other hand, opportunities were plentiful. A final result of 4 or 5-0 wouldn’t have been undeserved, and that’s not an exaggeration. If the result wasn’t bad enough for the visitors, their misery was compounded by Sokratis receiving a 2 match ban for accumulating 10 yellow cards. Arsenal did cope pretty well with his absence from the second leg of their Europa League tie against Rennes, but centre half is hardly their strongest position. Mustafi has always been extremely inconsistent and rash. Not having the experience of Mustafi beside him could make some tough fixtures all the more difficult.
When it comes to the very top of the table, most of the focus will have been on Liverpool, with Manchester City preoccupied with claiming their place in yet another cup final. The Merseyside club came up against Southampton at St Mary’s on Friday night. The vast difference in league positions would have made Liverpool clear favourites. But Southampton have improved under Hasenhuttl and are still fighting for Premier League survival. This game wasn’t going to be a walk in the park for Liverpool. That showed when Long opened the scoring early on. His energy was clearly causing Liverpool problems at the back; more goals looking like a possibility for the home side. Yet, when Naby Keita scored his first goal for Liverpool, you would have fancied the Reds going into the second half. . Mo Salah did look to be offside in the build up, raising questions over whether the goal should have stood. It was decided that it would have been allowed to stand even if VAR was in use because Southampton had a number of opportunities to reset before the goal was scored. Nonetheless, the fact that this has caused debate means that it is something which will need to be cleared up before VAR comes into use next season. Whether it should have been allowed or not, the officials will be relieved that this controversial goal wasn’t a decider; the Egyptian got the all important second goal with just 10 minutes left to play before Henderson added a third, cementing the win for Klopp’s men. The pressure is on Manchester City to maintain their strong form and win their game in hand in order to reclaim top spot. With both title competitors not allowing themselves any slip ups, it’s very difficult to call which side will eventually run out as league winners.
This Premier League season has been a unique one for a number of reasons. It’s not often that there’s such clear favourites for relegation. Huddersfield and Fulham already know they are going down. With Cardiff 5 points adrift of Southampton and Brighton, who also have a game in hand, they will be fancied by most to finish in that third and final relegation position. It’s also not often, at least not in recent years, for us to see such a close fight for the title and even the Champions League spots. No team fighting for third and 4th seems capable of really capitalising on each other’s mistakes leaving this race wide open. Meanwhile, despite currently sitting 2 points behind Liverpool, City’s game in hand will probably make them very slight favourites to secure back to back titles. However, either side winning all their remaining games is a big ask. The state of the Premier League summit could definitely change yet.