Kunle Ajao

Kunle Ajao

 Moves from one end of the pitch to the front of the goal. The crowd on their feet, the noise in Windy City is a rhythmic cacophony. Steadies. Shoots. Horribly misses. Yet the goals splits open, and she continues running anyway, it was routine after all; or at least it was supposed to be. That’s right, Diana Ross at the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup didn’t completely go according to plan, the likes of Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl in attendance for her gaffe in Chicago. Not that she’d be the only one with high-profile misses before the tournament ran out.

The World Cup in the United States was the first one with three points attached to a win, the first one in 20 years without England, and the first ever involving Nigeria. The Super Eagles shook off the disappointment of missing out to Cameroon in 1990 to book their spot this time, and were pitted in Group D with Greece, Bulgaria, and Argentina (they we’d be seeing more of over the next World Cups). Clemens Westerhof’s team got off to the perfect start, with a 3-0 win over the Bulgarians, and Rashidi Yekini’s famous net-bulging celebration in Dallas. Game Two wasn’t quite so good, as despite taking the lead through Emmanuel Amuneke, two goals from Claudio Caniggia ensured a defeat for the Eagles to Argentina. But Nigeria topped the group with six points, following a 2-0 win in the third game against Greece, and they, alongside Argentina and Bulgaria, headed for the last 16.

Group D wasn’t the only group where three teams had six points, Group F also shared that trait. The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia- a surprise package in the tournament, who produced a memorable goal through Saeed Al-Owairan- and Belgium all finished with two wins and a defeat, but that was nothing strange compared to the final standings in Group E, where all four teams were separated by the virtue of goals scored. Perhaps it should have seen as a forewarning of weirdness when the Republic of Ireland beat Italy in the opening game of that group. The Azzurri had the best player in the world in Roberto Baggio, but succumbed to a Ray Houghton goal in East Rutherford. The Irish finished second in the group after a 2-1 defeat to Mexico, where John Aldridge scored and threw his famous tantrum, and a goalless draw with Norway, who had the misfortune of being the only side eliminated from this group, after scoring just once.

But no group stage elimination would make the headlines like Colombia’s. Pitted in Group A with hosts USA, Switzerland and Romania, there were high expectations for the Colombians after their terrific qualifying campaign, so much so that drug cartels and other citizens allegedly gambled on the national side. So, a defeat to the Romanians in their first game in Pasadena wasn’t part of the plan. Game Two needed to go well, but it didn’t, a 2-1 defeat to the hosts on the same ground as the first game signalled elimination, a game when defender Andreas Escobar had the misfortune of scoring an own goal, an inadvertent act he paid for with his life, 10 days after the USA loss. The USA, meanwhile, would be heading to the next round, to face Brazil, who topped Group B. Group B produced two of the eventual semi-finalists, Brazil and Sweden, and a few notes of history. In the final round of games in the group, Russia hit Cameroon for a 6-1 win, where Oleg Salenko scored five of Russia’s goals, and Cameroon forward Roger Milla became the oldest goalscorer in FIFA World Cup history at the age of 42. It was the most, and only, notable acts in the tournament from both teams, who headed home after three games.

Brazil saw off USA in the last 16, the game in Stanford most famous for the clash between Leonardo’s elbow and Tab Ramos’ jaw. Sweden, meanwhile, ended the Saudi Arabians’ journey with a 3-1 victory in Dallas. In Foxborough, Nigeria and Italy locked horns in the last 16. With 88 minutes played, Nigeria were a goal up and a man up, Gianfranco Zola having been sent off (in rather dubious circumstances, it should be said). In a matter of minutes, the Super Eagles would match Cameroon’s achievement of an African team reaching the quarter-finals, in their debut tournament. So it was time to keep concentration, and do nothing rash. Unfortunately, two in the Super Eagles side didn’t consider pointless arguing instead of defending when an opponent gets a throw-in close to your box as something rash, so a culmination of events led to Roberto Baggio rolling in an equaliser, to force extra time. Not satisfied with shooting themselves in the foot the first time, Nigeria did it again, this time Sunday Oliseh was caught in possession in the middle of the pitch, another culmination of events later, Baggio- from the penalty spot- was getting his and the Azzurri’s second, and Nigeria would be heading home. Upset averted.

But an upset did occur in the last 16, in Pasadena, where Argentina, finalists of the previous tournament, were sent packing by Romania, a brace from Ilie Dumitrescu and a Gheorghe Hagi strike knocked out La Albiceleste, who by then were already without skipper Diego Maradona, sent home during the tournament for testing positive for cocaine. Oh, remember when this column said Diana Ross wouldn’t be the only penalty casualty in the tournament, step forward Alberto Garcia Aspe, Marcelino Bernal and Jorge Rodriguez, three of whom entered the Hall of Ross, as their penalty misses knocked out Mexico in the last 16 at the expense of Bulgaria.

Suddenly, Bulgaria, who had never won a game in a World Cup before this tournament, were quarter-finalists, but surely their journey would come an end, as they faced Germany in the last eight. Sure enough, Germany struck first, Lothar Matthaus with a penalty two minutes after halftime. It stayed that way till 15 minutes from the end, then things turned upside down. First, Hristo Stoichkov struck home a free-kick, then Yordan Letchkov delivered a superb header to turn things around. In the space of three minutes, the world champions were staring elimination in the face, and elimination would come, much to the joy of the non-participating English (well that’s what BBC said). Romania’s journey also came to an end in the quarters, penalty shootout heartbreak against Sweden despite Florin Raduicioiu’s double, Miodrag Belodedici with the decisive miss.

Sweden would re-unite with Brazil, after their group stage stalemate. But there had to be a winner this time, in Pasadena, and there was, Romario with the sole deciding strike 10 minutes from time. In the other semi, in East Rutherford, Baggio was Italy’s main man, his double was enough to see off Bulgaria. Bulgaria would be thrashed in the third place play-off by the Swedes, but they had already exceeded expectations, and it was a World Cup for them to savour, particularly since their record after this tournament reads: played three, lost two, scored one and conceded seven.

And so on to the final, in Pasadena’s main bowl, with Italy and Brazil facing off. They had met in that entertaining final in Mexico 24 years earlier, when Brazil won 4-1. This final, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction, a considerable low-key- to put it mildly- display from both sides meant for the first time in the history of the World Cup, the winners would be decided by a penalty shootout.

The first two were misses, Brazil’s Marcio Santos following Italy Franco Baresi in failing to find the net, to keep it goalless after one kick each. The next four were successful, Demetrio Albertini and Alberigo Evani for Italy, Romario and Branco for the Brazilians; then Daniele Massaro missed for the Italians. When Brazil skipper Dunga scored, it was match point, which meant Arrigo Sacchi’s side couldn’t afford another miss. Up stepped Baggio, the man who had taken them this far, and in completely ironic and tragic fashion, ‘The Prince’ skied his attempt. Baggio slumped to his knees in devastation, Brazil goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel took to his knees in elation, La Selacao were world champions for a fourth time.


It’s little gain saying that we’re in the ultra-modern era of football (well until a more modern one is reached), of players being brands, goal celebrations almost as important as the goals themselves, managerial handshakes in the spotlight, social media banter, and what not. But not many things signify this era like fantasy football, that virtual side of the game, where fans from all around have as busy a Friday as actual managers, tweaking and changing, and have as reflective a Monday too, looking back with equal lamentation or joy at the respective failure and success of their ‘masterplans’.

I’ve been involved in the Premier League’s official fantasy league for the past three seasons, the previous two of which have had a similar. Before the recently-concluded campaign, it had been start with optimism, then because you have more important things to do (and because you can’t go far in it anyway) you forget such a thing exists, then remember at the season’s embers to take things seriously (most especially in 2015/16).

But this time was different- not that there weren’t more important things to do. There was a private league with a close-knit bunch of… let’s call them people, which made bragging rights, as well as time to be spared more glaring. Suddenly every week was for checking the news, every negative on the injury front was a disaster. Sergio Aguero crashing in the Netherlands in September didn’t cause just Pep Guardiola headaches; Sadio Mane getting sent off didn’t leave just Jurgen Klopp brooding, it mattered to all managers, either with real or virtual concerns.

Over the 10 months of the season, it was almost like real management (maybe that’s a bit much), the table was followed weekly. Those who arrived late weren’t expected to get up and running, those whose attention switched elsewhere dropped down the standings. Advice was sought, reminders were issued, heads were scratched. And at the end of season, someone tops the charts, while others rue might have been, mistakes they made, gut feelings they ignored. The worst part is, no room for correction, the season has passed, time to brood and wait for the new season, another 38-game slog. Sound familiar to the real world?

Although, there’s only so much comparison you can make with fantasy and the real world, there are no tactics in the virtual world, no real outburst of passion, the rewards of the real world are obviously and significantly, as well as the demerits, plus virtual managers yell at actual managers, they have no control over who plays. Oh, and virtual managers don’t get sacked.

You could ask, isn’t the great and mighty Football Manager a managerial Westeros as well? True, but you could play out a season in Football Manager in three days, or less, and everything that happens is up to you, plus you get sacked in FM world. In the pure fantasy world (rather, a not Football Manager virtual world), you don’t decide who starts, who goes off in the 66th minute when you need points, and once it’s over, you wait the summer before you go again. On the bright side, no pre-season.


It wasn’t quite a Sergio Aguero circa 2012 moment on Sunday, but bedlam broke out at St. Mary’s, when Kevin de Bruyne’s delightful pass was finished off with a deft chip by Gabriel Jesus, in the 94th minute, to give Manchester City three points on the day, and a century of them for the season. Off went Jesus’ shirt, berserk went Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff, it was like the goal had just sealed them the league title.

That was the biggest in the hall of records that City have shattered this term. That win in the South Coast was their 16th away from home in the league, a new record. Their overall goal tally of 106 is a new record. Their run of 18 successive wins, between August and January, a new record. Their tally of wins (32), a new record. Their goal difference of 79, a new record; just like their points tally over the team in second place.

But City weren’t the only ones shaking up the history books on the final day. In the 26th minute at Anfield, Mohammed Salah found the back of Brighton’s net, making him the first player to exceed 31 goals in a 38-game league season. The Player of the Year bagged the golden boot award, ahead of Harry Kane, whose double for Spurs against Leicester took him to 30 goals this term, the first time two players have reached that figure in a single 38-game campaign. Kane’s goal tally also means he’s scored at least 20 times in each of the past four seasons, while Salah has equalled a record of goals in all competitions by a Premier League player (44), and still has a Champions League final left.

But, amidst the records, there was still football that had to be played. Southampton-Man City may have served up the late drama, but Spurs-Leicester provided the full-on madness, a game that went 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, to 3-3, then 4-3, 4-4, and finally stopped at 5-4. Braces for Kane, Jamie Vardy and Erik Lamela took the limelight, as did a pile-driver from the Foxes’ Kelechi Iheanacho. That win sealed third spot for Spurs, with Liverpool closely behind, after the Reds put four past Brighton. Liverpool had an outside chance of finishing outside the top four, and a shock defeat to the Seagulls would have helped that cause, but there was no such hiccup, and the other significant result didn’t matter, as Chelsea faltered at Newcastle.

Okay maybe faltered isn’t really the word. Chelsea travelled to St. James’, where they haven’t won in almost seven years, needing a win to stand a chance of snatching fourth spot, yet mustered no shot in the first half, and at the end were lucky to lose by just three goals. The dreadful display summed up the erstwhile champions’ season, it’s Thursday Night Football for them, and if this display is pre-requisite for the FA Cup final next week, then it’s no trophies for them.

Elsewhere:

  • ‘You wanted him out, you two-faced bastards’ sang the Huddersfield crowd at home to Arsenal on Arsene Wenger’s final game, to which the Gunners fans replied; ‘Herbert Chapman, he left because you’re shit’. On the pitch, there was a round of applause in the 22nd minute, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the answer to the 2027 pub quiz question: who scored Arsenal’s last goal under Wenger?
  • Swansea needed to win and hope for a miracle, so Swansea actually score, and score first in a game. Trust nature to rectify such anomaly, two goals from Stoke sending the Swans down with a whimper. After the Carlos Carvalhal bounce, the Welsh side’s season petered out with five straight losses. Bye!
  • It was goodbye from Michael Carrick, who hangs up his boots at the end of the season, but not before he reminded us of his vision to create Manchester United’s only goal at Watford. And to think, he could have gone off on a throne in the 16th minute.
  • Well, what else are you waiting for? Bye!!

Results (Final Positions)

(3rd) Tottenham 5-4 Leicester (8th)

(17th) Southampton 0-1 Manchester City (1st)

(2nd) Manchester United 1-0 Watford (14th)

(16th) Huddersfield 0-1 Arsenal (6th)

(4th) Liverpool 4-0 Brighton (15th)

(10th) Newcastle 3-0 Chelsea (5th)

(11th) Crystal Palace 2-0 West Brom (20th)

(13th) West Ham 3-1 Everton (8th)

(18th) Swansea 1-2 Stoke (19th)

(7th) Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth (12th)


There’s always much anticipation over the final day of each season when the fixture lists are released; the potential for last-day drama and season-changing results has always been one to look forward to. However, there is rarely anything to look forward to on the final days of recent Premier League seasons, just a case of dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s, the expected goodbyes and those who already on the beach.

Despite the early discomfort, Liverpool were always going to beat Middlesbrough on the final day of last season to seal fourth; Hull were always unlikely to beat Manchester United and survive in 2015; Manchester City were not going to have problems against West Ham to win the title in 2014; while only the foolhardy, in the guise of brave, would have gone for Arsenal not to beat Newcastle a year earlier. So, it’s not completely out of touch to say there’s been no real final day drama since Sergio Aguero swung his right foot in the 94th minute against Queens Park Rangers in 2012; that these days the final days of the season are like those meetings where you tap your foot in a fit of impatient boredom, while looking at your watch and waiting it all to end, with a message of ‘see you later’.

Following the midweek’s drama, scrappy goals and dogged defending, there is next-to-nothing to play for in the final round of matches for the Premier League season. Mathematically, there’s still a top four race, with Liverpool only two points ahead of Chelsea. But the Reds would have to lose to nothing-to-play-for Brighton for them to be leapfrogged, and in truth, the Blues are the likelier of both sides to lose, as they travel to Newcastle, where they haven’t won in seven years.

There’s also mathematical room for drama at the bottom end of the table, involving Southampton and Swansea City. But after the Saints’ narrow win in South Wales on Tuesday, Mark Hughes; side are three points above the 17th-placed Swans, with a superior. That means there has to be a 10-goal swing, Southampton would have to lose heavily at home to Manchester City, while, perhaps even more unlikely, Swansea would have to at least score against Stoke.

The definitely-wont-happen scenarios means the final day is set to be for goodbyes. None bigger than Arsene Wenger, who will manage Arsenal for the last time at Huddersfield, after 22 years. For the hosts, it might not be as headline-grabbing as Wenger’s, but they’ll say goodbye to midfielder Dean Whitehead, who’s retiring, and it’s bound to be a party mood, with the Terriers already safe from the relegation trapdoor. Yaya Toure made his 316th, and final, home appearance for Manchester City on Wednesday, and is another player that’ll be waved goodbye this weekend; while Everton’s trip to West Ham might well be Wayne Rooney’s last in the Premier League.

Wenger is unlikely to be the only managerial final act this weekend; Watford may well part ways with Javi Gracia, this might be Antonio Conte’s final league outing as Chelsea boss, Claude Puel is likely to bid Leicester farewell after their match at Spurs, while Everton fans will be hoping that West Ham game is Sam Allardyce’s last. There’ll also be collective goodbyes, with Stoke and West Brom, as well as Swansea (surely), bidding the top-flight goodbye for at least a year.

The expected absence of drama means the farewells will be the talking points of this final weekend, but who knows, maybe a surprise might come our way. Perhaps Brighton snatch an early lead at Anfield to make things interesting; maybe Swansea get wind that Man City are 11-1 up at Southampton with little time left. But the likelihood is that we’d all sit in a lack of anticipation, tapping our feet and looking at the time, until we bid the Prem. another unglamorous exit.

Fixtures

Burnley v Bournemouth

Crystal Palace v West Brom

Newcastle v Chelsea

Manchester United v Watford

Liverpool v Brighton

Huddersfield v Arsenal

Southampton v Manchester City

Swansea v Stoke

Tottenham v Leicester

West Ham v Everton


The end of the season: such a routine time, where the expected play themselves out: some teams reveal kits for the new season (yes, you, Everton), Manager XYZ says he’s leaving club XYZ at the close of the campaign, a tearful farewell follows the departure of a long-serving cult hero at a club, and Real Madrid win the Champions League (just typical).

Oh, right, and also, supposed writers run out of gas and opt to take a look at those Premier League players who might well switch clubs at the end of the season (or June 30 in Football-Managerish). It’s the ti…errr.. like I said, out of gas. So, straight to it then. Who are those players you could just about bet on to switch clubs after the season is read its last rites?

Arsenal

It’s likely there’ll be a raft of changes at the Emirates come the end of the season, the biggest one being the departure of Arsene Wenger. After 22 years, the French gaffer will call time on his Arsenal tenure at the end of the campaign, and it’s not unlikely that some players will also depart. Jack Wilshere’s contract runs out at the end of the season, as does the recuperating Santi Cazorla (although there’s an option of a one-year extension for him), while there are rumours linking Hector Bellerin with a move away. And with a new manager coming in, there’s expected to be a squad shake-up. No rest for the Arsenal revolving door in the summer, then.

Bournemouth

With first team opportunities hard to come by lately, Artur Boruc might well move on at the end of his contract in the summer. Harry Arter remains linked with the exit door, the rumours putting West Ham in front of the queue. Marc Pugh and Rhoys Wiggins are also out of contract at the end of the season.

Brighton

There’s always a worry for the Seagulls that bigger guns might come calling for Pascal Gross, who has been involved in 44% of the team’s goals in the Premier League this season. Liam Rosenior and Steve Sidwell will have no contracts once the season ends, and are likely to be moved on. Same might go for Niki Maenpaa and Uwe Hunemeier.

Burnley

There’s the big Burnley conundrum in terms of who’ll be in goal next season. Tom Heaton is arguably the best English goalkeeper in the league, but having been side-lined for most of this season, his deputy in Nick Pope hasn’t done too badly, even managing to force his way into World Cup contention. Both are good for number one spots at club level, and come next term, it’s likely one would move in search of it. Stephen Ward and Dean Marney are out of contract soon, while Scott Arfield has already agreed to join Rangers (no, not the one in Enugu).

Chelsea

It’s not Chelsea if there’s no forthcoming change for a new season once an old one is coming to a close, and this term looks to be no different.  Antonio Conte looks as likely to stay at Stamford Bridge next season as pigs are to fly, Chelsea are reportedly in talks with other managers already, and this- coupled with the fact that Champions League football for the next campaign is unlikely, means changes to the playing staff as well. David Luiz has spent most of this season- injury or otherwise- out of the team, Danny Drinkwater’s time at the club looks to be coming to an end, and it remains to be seen whether Tiemoue Bakayoko would get another season to get into shape, while backup goalkeepers Willy Caballero and Eduardo are out of contract in the summer. The big question is whether Eden Hazard would stick around for a second season with European elite football in three years. One thing’s for certain, though: there’ll be lots of loanees, as always.

Crystal Palace

Palace’s problematic position for the past couple of years has been in goal, with the men between the sticks having rarely convinced. All three are about to be out of contract, though, as Julian Speroni, Wayne Hennessey and Diego Cavalieri are bound to be free agents by the end of the season (although Vicente Guaita is due to join from Getafe). There’s also bound to be a hairy transfer window for the Eagles, with Wilfred Zaha likely to be subject of speculation, while there’s uncertainty surrounding Christian Benteke- even if he has said he intends to stay. Joel Ward, James McArthur, Bakary Sako, Lee Chung-Yong, Damien Delaney, Yohan Cabaye and Martin Kelly are also out of contract soon (I know right, too long).

Everton

There’s bound to be another busy summer for the Toffees, not least in terms of the exit door, likely starting with manager Sam Allardyce himself. The likes of Sandro Ramirez, Davy Klaassen and Cuco Martina are likely to be moved on after just a season, while fans would pay to drive Ashley Williams away. Joel Robles becomes a free agent once the season ends.

Huddersfield

Errr…. Not much to talk about here. Dean Whitehead and Rob Green are soon to become free agents, but (not to sound mean) who’d really miss them? Aaron Mooy might attract clubs in the summer. 

Leicester

Goalkeeper Ben Hamer runs out of contract at the end of the season, as does Robert Huth, who’s been out of the side this season thanks to a combination of injury and Harry Maguire. Riyad Mahrez has reportedly revoked his transfer request, but his case is still tagged under ‘remains to be seen’. Currently out on loan players Leo Ulloa, Islam Slimani, and long-serving Andy King are likely to also move on. As is customary at the time of the season, Claude Puel is reportedly likely to be dismissed.

Liverpool

The big transfer issue for Liverpool, since Philippe Coutinho said bye, has been Emre Can, who runs out of contract in the summer. The injured German is under Juventus’ radar, and there have been reports of a deal being signed with the Italian club. The right-back position looks rather clogged, and one of Nathaniel Clyne, Joe Gomez, and Trent Alexander-Arnold might well move on, something Daniel Sturridge would also be considering. James Milner and Alberto Moreno can also leave on a free at the end.

Manchester City

Who’d wanna leave? Okay, Yaya Toure has confirmed his departure at the end of the season, while loanee Eliaquim Mangala’s contract runs out. Joe Hart would also return from his temporary stint at West Ham, but surely be on the way out again.

Manchester United

Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw. The young left-back has been subject of some finger-pointing by manager Jose Mourinho, and there wouldn’t be a shortage of clubs coming in for English defender, who’s departure from Old Trafford seems inevitable. Michael Carrick retires at the end of the season, Anthony Martial remains linked with the exit door, while Marouane Fellaini’s contract issue remains unresolved. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind are also bound to leave. Have I mentioned Luke Shaw?

Newcastle

Most of the Magpies’ squad is still comprised of their Championship side, even if some of them don’t appear on the pitch. Much depends on whether or not players arrive, although the likes of fringe players in Jesus Gamez, Curtis Good and Massadio Haidara, as well as loanee Tim Krul, are all out of contract at the season’s close.

Southampton

The future of a few players, and perhaps the manager, depends on whether the Saints can avoid the drop (which is likely), while Sofiane Boufal is likely to move after his exile by Mark Hughes. Jeremy Pied and Stuart Taylor are soon to no longer have contracts.

Stoke City

With relegation having been confirmed, clear-outs are not unlikely. Xherdan Shaqiri is unlikely to follow the club to the Championship, same goes for Joe Allen (picture Brendan Rodgers in Glasgow with open arms). Glenn Johnson, Jakob Haugaard, Stephen Ireland and Charlie Adam all run out of contracts soon, but dropping them a tier might make the team reconsider.

Swansea City

Another side whose players’ futures might hinge on whether or not they go down, although Alfie Mawson is likely to have a busy summer no matter what. The likes of Martin Olsson and especially Lukasz Fabianski are bound to move on should relegation be the case, while Ki Sung-Yeung is out of contract and has been linked with AC Milan, while long-serving veterans Leon Britton and Angel Rangel are also soon to be free agents.

Tottenham

It’s the stuff of mini-battles at Tottenham, with the likes of Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld seemingly on the losing side of off-the-pitch tussles with manager Mauricio Pochettino. Both have a fair amount of suitors, and both are likely to be moved on. There are also rumours of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama leaving, while Fernando Llorente might consider the exit door considering the (lack of) playing he has had. Backup goalie Michel Vorm is soon to be out of contract.

Watford

It’s not Watford if you don’t expect change at the end of the season. Manager Javi Gracia only arrived in January (on an 18-month contract), yet there are more than a few suggestions that he might be shown the door once the season reaches its close, especially with their usual end-of-season form. Any potential managerial change is always likely to lead to changes in the playing staff as well, so expect departures as well as arrivals- some Hornets fans might bite your hand off for the opportunity to drive away the inconsistent Etienne Capoue. Miguel Britos is out of contract at the end of the campaign.

West Brom

With relegation now sealed, there’s going to be changes at the Hawthorns, beginning with the managerial post. Ben Foster has declared his intention to stay even in the Championship, but clubs are surely going to come for defender Johnny Evans; Salomon Rondon has done his reputation little harm, and will lure admirers, while the likes of Nacer Chadli and Jay Rodriguez might remain in the top-flight with someone else. Chris Brunt might stick around, but his contract is currently due to expire at the season’s end, same goes for Gareth Barry, James Morrison, Gareth McAuley, Claudio Yacob and Boaz Myhill.

West Ham

If the fans had their way, the changes would begin from the boardroom. They might well settle for the departure of manager David Moyes, whose short-term contract runs out at the end of the season. Same applies for James Collins and Patrice Evra, the latter of whom is unlikely to get any renewal. Expect Robert Snodgrass to depart almost as soon as he returns from his loan at Aston Villa.


Priceless. Those were the looks of the Huddersfield celebrations at Stamford Bridge after a draw in West London confirmed that the Terriers would continue in the top flight for another season; a division they were hardly supposed to come to in the first place. When that improbable fairy-tale was completed at Wembley in May last year, the assumption from everyone was that Huddersfield would go down. The Premier League was a room of unpredictability and surprises, yet the only seeming certainty was that David Wagner’s side would go down; and even the Terriers fans accepted it: the journey here had been surreal, but surviving was too much to ask, it was a case of enjoying the ride. But now, it has become one of enjoying the ride, and staying for yet another adventure.

Ahead of Tuesday’s game at Stamford Bridge, Huddersfield simply needed a point to guarantee survival, after they sweated one off Manchester City at the champions coronation party just three days earlier. They had battled, suffered and defended so valiantly at the Etihad, and were likely to do so again here. Chelsea had aspirations of their own, their Sunday victory over Liverpool had them back in the top four hunt, and weren’t going to be as relaxed as City if things were still deadlocked late on, but Town defender Chris Lowe had said on Sunday that nothing was impossible.

As expected, Chelsea would dominate proceedings, with the visitors more than happy to cede possession, and they were definitely happy at the break, a goalless score-line at halftime meant they were halfway through confirming survival, and things were about to get better. The visitors had barely had a sniff of Chelsea’s goal, when, five minutes into the second period, Lowe caught Willian in possession and Aaron Mooy lumped a long ball towards Laurent Depoitre. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero was second best to the ball, and despite an initial block from the Argentine, Depoitre was not going to falter in front of a gaping goal.

Wagner tried to keep his cool, but couldn’t quite, while the away fans lost theirs, going berserk. Huddersfield had needed one point, as it stood they had three, and now had to concede twice to be denied safety. One goal came, Christopher Schindler’s clearance rebounded off Marcos Alonso and past a wrong-footed Jonas Lossl. But tried as Chelsea may, there would be no second strike. Huddersfield’s most commendable achievement away to City wasn’t that they prevented them from scoring, but that they prevented them from even creating goal-scoring chances, and here was no different. There were mostly goalmouth scrambles- one of which led to Lossl tipping an Andreas Christensen header onto the post, and crosses across the face of goal, but no real chances created, Huddersfield putting their bodies on the line to defend, and more than intent to boot the ball upfield whenever the chance came.

All that was left was for them to win a free-kick in the final minute of stoppage time, hear the final whistle and begin the party, their fairy-tale story in the big-time isn’t ending just yet. When they lost at home to Everton a week earlier, it all looked like doom, their final three games against Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal, yet two points in the first two of those games means the third of those is likely to be a party. A party of euphoria, and most of all, disbelief.

Elsewhere

  • That result also means Chelsea’s hard-fought win against Liverpool is rendered all-for-nothing. They now need the Reds to lose at home to Brighton on the final day, while they win at Newcastle, something they haven’t done in four outings. Too early for an Antonio Conte parting song?
  • In the relegation Superbowl, Southampton scrapped their way to a 1-0 win at Swansea, to live the Swans on the edge of the drop. They need to beat Stoke, then hope the Saints lose to Man City, as well as a huge goal-difference swing (10 goals) to survive. Tootles.
  • Speaking of City- Manchester, not Swansea- they now hold the record for most points, goals and wins in a single Premier League season. Victory on the final day gives them a century of points.
  • Points… Something Arsenal still don’t have away from home in 2018.
  • It was nervy, it was hard-fought. It was lucky, it was –at times- tedious. But more importantly, it was a win for Spurs against Newcastle, to seal top-four spot, for the third year running. But as they keep (sort of) asking: Mauricio Pochettino, is progress really progress until you win beat Northampton to win the League Cup?

Results

Chelsea 1-1 Huddersfield

Manchester City 3-1 Brighton

Swansea 0-1 Southampton

Tottenham 1-0 Newcastle

Leicester 3-1 Arsenal

Thursday Night Football (much to the continuing displeasure of the Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg): West Ham v Manchester United


The party was in full flow at the end at the Etihad, from the painted faces among the coaching staff, to the jokes and playful hits on Yaya Toure from the playing staff,  the atmosphere wouldn't let up as Manchester City finally lifted the Premier League trophy, their third in seven years, their first before the final day.

While the celebrations were going on on the pitch, in the opposition dressing room, there was cause for cheer as well, as Huddersfield became the first side this league season to prevent the champions from scoring at home. The expectations from everyone was simple and straightforward, Huddersfield would turn up as minor characters on City's coronation show, get thumped, and head back across the Penines. But the Terriers hadn't read the script, and they made off with an absolutely pivotal point.

'Nobody expected us to get anything...' said left-back Chris Lowe. He was not wrong in that regard, and they might well have gotten everything from the game. When Lowe hauled off late on, he was replaced by Scott Malone, who had a chance in the dying embers of normal time.  After robbing Bernardo Silva of possession, Malone had green grass ahead of him, but seemed to stop in anticipation of referee Mike Dean's whistle for a foul, by the time he got hold of his bearings, there was cover and he could fire a shot straight at Ederson.

Not that they would be brooding over what might have been, though, and there was even room to congratulate their hosts. 'First of all big credit to City and Pep for their great achievement' said David Wagner.  'you've seeb today that they are the best team'. And that's another plus on Huddersfield's side, that they didn't stopped the best team in the land, a team who has scored at least three times in 20 of their league games this term.

Back in the reverse fixture in November, Huddersfield were unlucky to leave empty-handed; this time luck wouldn't desert them. They are the side to have conceded the least amount of goals to the champions, alongside Chelsea, with four, but it was in the manner in which they did it. It wasn't just that they prevented City,  also that they didn't concede a shot on target since the 35th minute, that they frustrated and rendered their hosts flat on the day.

Wagner spoke about how the team practised by defending in 'themes' ahead of the game, but, as he also noted: 'It's one thing to speak about it in theory, but another thing to deliver it in the grass'. And his side delivered.

That was the first of three daunting-looking fixtures to close the season for the Yorkshire club, with a trip to Chelsea and a home game against Arsenal to follow as they seek survival. 'Nothing is impossible,we just wanted to go out there and try our best to get something'.

For City, the goal, win and points records remain to be broken (even if it seems inevitable), and they now have to win their final two games to get to 100 points.

For Huddersfield, it was just the one point, and a big one at that.

Elsewhere

  • It was quite heartbreaking for Southampton at Goodison, as the Saints conceded in stoppage time against Everton to drop two points. The draw does take them out of the bottom three, ahead of Swansea- who lost at Bournemouth- on goal difference. The centre will not hold when these two meet on Tuesday.
  • For the third game in a row, Mohammed Salah didn't score... what's happening. He and Liverpool were toothless in defeat at Stamford Bridge, where he also got booked for simulation. That result means Chelsea’s Champions League hopes are still alive, but they still require slip ups from the Reds or Spurs, in truth.
  • Another game,  another defeat for Leicester. Their season is petering out, and Claude Puel looks likely to pay the price.
  • It was farewell time at the Emirates for Arsene Wenger, as his final home game with the Gunners ended with a 5-0 drubbing of Burnley, whose next campaign will begin in July.
  • West Brom just won't go down. Jake Livermore's late goal at home to Spurs means they're still in with a mathematical chance of survival, It also means Darren Moore has masterminded three wins in five league games. Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew had a joint record of three wins in the previous 41. Proper football men, eh!
  • If it's relegation you want,  then bid Stoke farewell, as the Potters tumbled out of the top-flight after losing at home to Crystal Palace. So much for looking forward to that final day game against Swansea.
  • Weird weekend stat: none of the sides in the top four scored!
  • For wins in a row, now three defeats on the bounce. All who clamoured for Rafa Benitez as manager of the season, congratulations, you jinxed it.
  • Healthy wishes to Sir Alex Ferguson, who went through brain surgery at the weekend.
  • And welcome back Cardiff City, and Neil Warnock, not that Neil lasts long at this level. Eighth time's the charm?

Results

Manchester City 0-0 Huddersfield

Arsenal 5-0 Burnley

Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool

Leicester 0-2 West Ham

West Brom 1-0 Tottenham

Brighton 1-0 Manchester United

Bournemouth 1-0 Swansea

Everton 1-1 Southampton

Stoke 1-2 Crystal Palace

Watford 2-1 Newcastle


It wasn’t so much as being nervy, but rather occupying a convoy of nerves at the St. Mary’s, as Southampton managed to stumble over the finish line against Bournemouth. The win was a narrow as it was vital, the performance as irrelevant afterwards, as it was shaky during; the air punches from Mark Hughes and his assistant at the final whistle, along with the sighs of joy and relief from the players summed it up: Southampton still have life in them.

This South Coast derby had been a must-win for the Saints, after a torrid of form in the league- no wins since February prior to this. There had been close calls, a 3-2 defeat at Arsenal where the Saints spirit and commitment yielded plaudits but no points, a 3-2 defeat at home to Chelsea where their impressive start was replaced by a horrific conclusion as they threw away a two-goal advantage; there had also been insipid displays; from the 3-0 loss in Hughes’ first game, at West Ham, to the 3-0 loss in Mauricio Pellegrino’s last, at Newcastle.

But every battle has a turning point if things are primed to still end well, every war its twist of fate that shows there might just be salvation after all, and perhaps this is the Saints’ Normandy moment, their Battle of Gettysburg situation. Two goals from Dusan Tadic was enough for victory over the Cherries on Saturday…well, two goals at the attacking end, at least. At the other end, there was a combination of brave and gutsy defending, mixed with desperate and nervous defending, as well as a few good saves from goalkeeper Alex McCarthy (one of which was a blinder in stoppage time to keep out Josh King’s deflected effort). The football was hardly mind-blowing, the fans were edgy, and the players had their fair share of tiredness, but they held on nevertheless.

That big win became even bigger considering the state of results of elsewhere. When the Saints were hanging on against Bournemouth, fellow relegation battlers Huddersfield were succumbing to Everton at the John Smith’s stadium. The Terriers had gone into that game with a chance of virtually gaining survival, but a 2-0 loss, where they lacked any sort of invention going forward and didn’t look like scoring even if the entire Toffees squad got hypnotised, now leaves them just three points above Southampton, who are in 18th. That’s the first point to note for David Wagner’s team, the second is that their final three games are against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, two of those away from home. The celebrations at the end of that win against Watford a fortnight ago sent a message, the lack of one at the end of this defeat sent another.

The relegation battle story of this weekend doesn’t end with those two, as before Huddersfield and Southampton took the pitch for their respective games, Stoke City had gone to Anfield and claimed a point. It was an expected backs against the wall game for Paul Lambert’s side, but perhaps the result wasn’t as predicted, the Potters sharing the spoils after an impressive display at the back. The reality is that it’s still no wins in 12 for the Potters, and they’re still 19th having played a game more than their rivals around the drop zone, but this could well be a big point, especially considering one of their final two games is against Swansea.

Swansea would also face Southampton before the season runs out, and this weekend, despite their second half performance, they fell to defeat at Chelsea. A frustrating evening for Carlos Carvalhal leaves his side just a point above the drop zone. That home game against Southampton in the penultimate will be vital.

West Ham, meanwhile, are only two points off Swansea, and by extension three from Southampton. They also have a rather terrible goal difference, not aided by their loss at home to Manchester City, which made them the worst defence in the league so far this season. Brighton, who drew at Burnley, may be two points further forward, but aren’t quite safe yet, especially as they end the season with a home game against Manchester United, as well as trips to Liverpool and Manchester City.

This long slog looks like playing out right to the wire.

Five-star Eagles

One team that’s probably safe are Crystal Palace, who, amidst the battles going on elsewhere, were putting five past Leicester City on Saturday. There was a first goal at home for Christian Benteke in just about a year, while the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and (of course) Wilfred Zaha came to the party, which was almost literal at the end of it. Palace haven’t lost against a side currently in the bottom half since September, Palace have the best goal difference in the bottom half, Palace are three points off the top ten. This was the same side that were goalless and pointless in October.

Elsewhere

  • It was a brilliant reception for Arsene Wenger as he walked on to Old Trafford for the final time, before receiving an award from Sir Alex Ferguson, and even (yes, really) sharing a smile with Jose Mourinho. At the end of it, there was no smile on his face, as his youthful side came close to grabbing a point at Old Trafford, but his last league game at the Theatre of Dreams succumbed to Fergie Time; how fitting. Arsenal still haven’t managed an away point in 2018; how worrying.
  • That West Ham loss to Man City, means City are now seven points away from a century of Premier League points in a season, as well as two goals away from the Premier League record of 103 in a season (by Chelsea in 2009/10). They have more goals in the first half of games, than West Ham have over 90 minutes.
  • Having looked doomed all season, suddenly West Brom won’t go down. Their win at Newcastle means they’re not mathematically relegated, yet. It also means they are unbeaten in four games under Darren Moore. They’ve won two games in that time, Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew combined for three league wins in nine months.
  • On the Chelsea win at Swansea, it’s finally 50 up in the Prem. for Cesc Fabregas at last. More pressingly, should Chelsea win all their remaining three games, they might finish in the top four.
  • And Mohammed Salah scored for Liv… oh, hang on. He didn’t (!). He even missed a sitter in Liverpool’s goalless draw with Stoke (what!!!).

Results

Southampton 2-1 Bournemouth

Burnley 0-0 Brighton

Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

Crystal Palace 5-0 Leicester

West Ham 1-4 Manchester City

Newcastle 0-1 West Brom

Huddersfield 0-2 Everton

Swansea 0-1 Chelsea

Liverpool 0-0 Stoke

Monday Night Football: Tottenham v Watford


And the end of the road isn’t so far now. It was barely a week ago that Arsene Wenger announced that this season would be his last at the club, and from the next campaign, for the first time in 22 years, the answer to the question ‘who’s Arsenal’s manager?’ wouldn’t be the Frenchman. As expected, the inevitable praises and reminiscing over his time at the club have been pouring in. From journalists, fellow managers, current and former players, both for and against. Not least of them a tweet from ex-Manchester United man Gary Neville, who mentioned facing Arsenal in the Wenger era and the difficulty that posed.

And so, in a way, it’s quite fitting that one of Le Professeur’s final games before he walks off to the sunset would be at Old Trafford, and, as destiny would have it, against Jose Mourinho. The old adversary will be the last manager Wenger faces in the Old Trafford dugout before calling time on his, however sour the latter of part seems to have been, illustrious adventure with the Gunners, a ground that has held a few unforgettable memories for the 68-year-old.

It was at Old Trafford that Wenger suffered that infamous 8-2 defeat in August of 2011; at Old Trafford that he watched United become champions in 2009, seven years after he and his Arsenal team were also confirmed kings of the land at the Theatre of Dreams. It was at the same stadium he stood in the stands, arms aloft in a fit of ‘it’s just me’ almost a decade ago; where that famous pizza-gate incident happened in 2005, where his team were trampled 6-1 in 2000, and where Arsenal won to take momentum on their way to title triumph in 1998.

The Arsenal v United games, especially between the late ‘90s and 2005, were as pivotal as they were fiercely-contested. From the touchline squabble between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, the dressing room and pitch tussles between players (yes, this is you, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira), to the silverware on offer, it was the quite the series. But even after everything changed, the players, even the stadium, even when Fergie himself retired, there was still a constant in the fixture. Now that constant is about to change.

There isn’t much, in terms of the league, riding on this game; United can’t be champions and can’t dropout of the top four, while Arsenal, with the top four a bridge too far, are more interested in their Europa League affairs, where they have a second leg at Atletico waiting four days after this game. So the focus is likely to be on Wenger. How would the home fans welcome the Frenchman? What would the exchange between he and Mourinho be like? Would he finally win away at a Mourinho team before bowing out? With the likelihood of a reshuffled side as a result of their European commitments, that last part might seem unlikely, but this is a fixture that hasn’t wanted for twists and turns, one of this weekend’s being Alexis Sanchez hosting his former club.

And with that point it is worth noting that there will be more plot twists and drama in this fixture for years to come, the trend has already been set. But when the final whistle goes on Sunday, when Wenger walks down that path for the last time and into the tunnel, one of the men who have helped set the tone for this glamorous story between these rivals will be bidding it goodbye. Before that, though, he still has another chapter to star in.

Elsewhere:

  • It’s gone from ‘win or bust’ stage to ‘win-but-even-that-might-not-be-enough-because-you-left-it-late’ stage for Stoke, as the Potters know the water is hastily running dry as they seek to swim to the other side of the dotted line. Paul Lambert’s side will just about need to win the rest of their remaining fixtures to have a chance of survival. First, a trip to Anfield, where they haven’t won in 54 top-flight fixtures, and are bound to be up against probably the deadliest front three in Europe right now. Good luck with that one.
  • Speaking of last chance saloon, Southampton are in a not-so dissimilar situation. The past few weeks have been plaudits-not-points for the Saints, who are running out of time and games. The upcoming South Coast derby is a definite must-win, perhaps it’s time for some more attacking displays.
  • It’s shades of Southampton again for Claude Puel: the results are drying up, the boos are ringing, complaints have come about his training sessions, and the board are considering replacing him in the summer. He and Leicester need three points at Crystal Palace, or, with games against Tottenham and Arsenal to come, their season might just peter out, and someone might just be ringing Mauricio Pellegrino.
  • And Burnley can cement a European place with as much as a point at home to Brighton. Nine months on, and it’s still incredible.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Arsenal

Tottenham v Watford

Swansea v Chelsea

Liverpool v Stoke

Southampton v Bournemouth

Huddersfield v Everton

Burnley v Brighton

West Ham v Manchester City

Newcastle v West Brom

Crystal Palace v Leicester


It was quite the spectacle at Anfield on Tuesday night, as Liverpool broke into a five-goal lead in the semi-final first leg, but had to make do with a 5-2 win after conceding two late goals against Roma. But the Italian side's defending was less than impressive and Roy Keane, in typical Roy Keane fashion, hasn't held back his thoughts. 

'They gave up after about an hour and downed tools', said the former Manchester United captain. If I played like some of their defenders did I would consider retiring from football. We can slag Roma off but Liverpool had to take advantage of that'.

Speaking to ITV, Keane believes Roma will improve in the return leg at home, but says Liverpool 'could have scored ten'.

Roma host the Reds in the return leg in Rome, needing three goals to win, the same margin before that miraculous comeback against Barcelona, but Keano doesn't see a way back for the Giallorossi.

Not like you could blame him, no one did against Barca either.


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