Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Six of the Best

THE TOP ENGLISH CLUBS HAVE MADE 2018-'19 A RIVETING RIDE

Whoever comes out on top in England this season, it has been a refreshingly competitive campaign.

Instead of one side streets ahead, three clubs had been in contention for much of the season before the league became a two-horse race in the final straight, but the top six as a whole have created plenty of juicy stories.

THE TOP ENGLISH CLUBS HAVE MADE 2018-'19 A RIVETING RIDE


Fans of Tottenham Hotspur, whose title challenge has fallen by the wayside again, are far from unhappy as they have a shiny new stadium and more importantly their side are in the last four in Europe for the first time in a half-century.

That Spurs are within touching distance of the Champions League final is remarkable enough, but to have done it without Harry Kane too is extraordinary. In him, Christian Eriksen, Dele Ali and Song Heung Min they have four world-class footballers who when on song can defeat anybody.

Liverpool and Manchester City could have enjoyed a Champions League final as well as a Premier League finale but Pep Guardiola's men fluffed their lines at the Etihad by losing on away goals to Tottenham.

What was interesting was the feeling City fans were apparently split on whether they would prefer the European Cup to another domestic triumph, perhaps an unprecedented treble of Championship, FA Cup and League Cup

On paper the Champions League is the greater prize and one which continues to elude Guardiola since he departed the Camp Nou, but whispers say he values the longer slog of the Premier League more highly.

In addition, City fans, despite their recent renaissance due to Abu Dhabi, still retain the stamp of years of domestic underachievement and would secretly prefer to finish above Manchester United and spike Liverpool's revival by bagging the Premier League.

It certainly seemed odd that Guardiola felt the need to exhort Citizens supporters to come out in force and make noise for their Champions League quarter-final.

If Liverpool win the title and Jurgen Klopp lifts the curse which has afflicted the Reds since 1990 the season will belong to them, but if Spurs win the Champions League the annals will be split on which achievement was the greater.

Expect an ocean of tears from both clubs' fans whatever happens in May.

Given Manchester United's sudden precipitous decline under 'saviour' Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, the upcoming Manchester derby could effectively hand city rivals City the title. While Liverpool have the swashbuckling romance in their campaign, City's relentless march keeps them a point ahead.

For Liverpool to have even maintained such a close contest by this stage is extraordinary and their German leader should win the Manager of the Year award for that alone. On the other hand, Guardiola would probably trump him to the prize by bagging the domestic treble.

After United's 4-0 capitulation to Everton, the knives, naysayers and doom-mongers are out in ubiquitous force for their manager everyone was hailing as a messiah and an inspirational choice only a few weeks ago.

How quickly things change in football, with all the experts who lauded the Old Trafford boardroom to the skies for appointing an insider, now delightedly dismantling their philosophy as fatally flawed from the outset.

Now hands up who saw the Norwegian having a flying start for ten games then collapsing like a pack of cards. Currently sat in sixth, United are set to miss out on European football altogether next season, which would be tragic for a team of their stature.

They might not be leading the league or advancing in Europe anymore, but the Red Devils are clearly still the biggest club in England.

Arsenal could end up winning the Europa League, a trophy Unai Emery knows better than most, and entering the Champions League through the back door if they fail to finish in the top four in the Premier League.

Gunners fans should be reasonably content with their first season post-Wenger as clubs usually slip under the surface just after a long-serving manager retires.

Chelsea supporters on the other hand will pack away their scarves in May with regret at another domestic campaign which failed to ignite with another beleaguered Mediterranean manager.

The jaw-dropping farce of goalkeeper Kepa refusing Maurizio Sarri's demand to leave the field at Wembley in the League Cup Final will live long in the memory.

The summer will surely see Belgian ball wizard Eden Hazard leave Stamford Bridge, despite scintillating form this campaign.

All is not lost however as the Blues could meet the Gunners in an all-London Europa League final in Baku in May.

Despite two sides from the North-West conducting an enthralling title race, the continent's two major trophies could be heading to London.

Whoever wins what in May, the permutations in April for the top six clubs remain intriguing.

As we enter the home straight, take a pause to consider what a season to savour this has been.

(s) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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