There were about 20 minutes left to play in Sunday’s Tottenham/Manchester City Premier League match.
City was ahead 1-0.
It was looking like — with a month’s worth of games left to be played — there was next to nothing compelling left about the league that loves to bill itself at every opportunity as, “the best in the world.”
The title was all but Manchester United’s. The four English Champions League participants were going to be the same four as last year. Two of three relegation sports were claimed too, by QPR and Reading.
And apologies to Sunderland, Newcastle, Stoke City, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic, it’s hard to get all that wrapped up in which one of those five clubs is going to be relegated to the NPower Championship. Relegation battles are always lively and draw some sort of odd fascination from us unwashed Americans who clamor for a promotion/relegation system in our professional sports leagues. Still, if you’re the Premier League with a month left to play, you’ve got to do better to interest viewers worldwide than this battle between five middling teams.
The idea of a “relegation scrum” is fun … until you actually decide to invest two hours of your life to watch Aston Villa play Sunderland.
Fortunately we don’t have to worry about this potential damp squib scenario.
Spurs — and later on Sunday Luis Suarez and Liverpool — changed this equation.
As Ty Duffy detailed on Sunday, Liverpool’s last-second equalizer at Anfield against Chelsea threw the race for the final two Champions League berths wide-open, saying nothing of the Uruguayan’s nibble on Branislav Ivanovic. (Am I the only person who think Suarez might just be a big fan of ‘Seinfeld’ and or Jon Voight?)
That result, coupled with Spurs come-from-behind 3-1 win over Manchester City at White Hart Lane mean there’s still a reason to keep waking up early on Saturday and Sunday to watch the Premier League. Thank you Gareth Bale, Clint Dempsey and Jermain Defoe.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs are now Nos. 3-5 in the table, separated by a mere two points. Chelsea and Spurs have played one less game, but meet each other in a mid-week game on May. 5, which will probably be the make-or-break for either club. If either Chelsea or Spurs win out — one of the places in the Champions League is theirs based on math. Everton in sixth is still mathematically alive, but the Toffees lost to Sunderland on Saturday which all but eliminates their faint hopes of finishing fourth for the first time since 2005.
Chelsea, mind, is still alive in the Europa League as they encroach on the 70 games played in a calendar year threshold. Can lame-duck interim manager Rafa Benitez coax another month of solid play from his increasingly dead-legged players?
Spurs are blessed with a very manageable schedule — Wigan, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland — aside from the Chelsea match, but have a propensity for gagging it up down the stretch, as evidenced by the infamous lasagna incident. If you polled Tottenham fans more would expect Spurs to lose this Saturday to Wigan than win, right?
In a way it’s sad that this is what it’s come to in the English top flight with a month left to play — the race for the mega-money windfall of qualifying for the Champions League between one already super-rich club (Chelsea) and two pretty well-off North London clubs.
This is the way it’s been across all the big leagues in Europe this term.
Bayern Munich clinched the Bundesliga earlier this month, but had it wrapped up by the time the league took its annual winter break. Juventus and PSG haven’t clinched Serie A or Ligue 1 yet, but both have pulled away from the field and should end up cruising to the finish line.
In La Liga, Barcelona essentially won the league title, I think, back in August, or it’s felt that way.
The only two relevant European leagues with even a hint of a title race this spring are the Dutch Eredivisie and the Portuguese Premeira Liga, and even those are all but wrapped up with a handful of games to play. (In Portugual Benfica and FC Porto are 20+ points clear of the third place team, as both are unbeaten. Benfica is likely going to win the title on the strength of having two less draws than Porto.)
Call it a quirk or a coincidence. When you’re deciding your league champion on a single-table system, runaways are bound to happen. Granted, a season ago the Premier League was decided on basically the last kick of the ball by Manchester City, so it ebbs and flows.
There probably ins’t a perfect system to ensure a dramatic title result for soccer, either. If the best team in a specific league has been decided the second week in April? So be it.
Leagues like MLS decide their champions with a playoff, but the smaller sample size of 5-6 games, compared to 30+ in a regular season occasionally leads to a somewhat mediocre side lifting the trophy.
In England this year we all already know who’ll win the trophy that counts. That’ll be Manchester United, who could and should clinch it this afternoon against Aston Villa on ESPN2.
That means for the next couple weeks what we have left is wondering which club will lift the unofficial “fourth trophy”?
Considering that name comes from an Arsene Wenger saying, perhaps somebody could fashion a miniature puffy coat trophy out of tin foil and present it to whichever team finishes fourth as a symbol of their historic achievement.
[Photo via Getty]