Final Day Drama in the Premier League

After a flurry of midweek action that saw Nigel Pearson sacked as Watford coach with two games to go, Aston Villa beat Arsenal to boost their promotion hopes and Liverpool finally lift the Premier League trophy, the English top flight entered its final gameweek with a lot still on the line. 352 days after the first game of the season, the issues of Champions League qualification, Europa League qualification and relegation were all still to be decided. 

Aston Villa, Watford and Bournemouth went into Sunday all looking for the final spot to guarantee them safety for next season. 17th placed Villa and 18th placed Watford were level on 34 points separated by one goal, while 19th placed Bournemouth were 3 points adrift at 31. In order for Villa to survive all they needed to do was win at West Ham, while Watford and Bournemouth both needed to win their games against Arsenal and Everton and rely on West Ham to beat Villa. 

Bournemouth have impressed in recent seasons following their fairytale rise up through the divisions from League 2 all the way to Premier League. This season, however, has been one to forget for the Cherries. After being comfortably beaten by Southampton 2-0 last weekend, their destiny was no longer in their hands. They needed to beat Everton to stand any chance of survival, but that was dependent on both Watford and Villa losing. Bournemouth were comfortably the better side on Merseyside, however, romping out as 3-1 winners against an Everton side who have been worryingly inconsistent this season. Goals from Joshua King, Dominic Solanke and Junior Stanislas guided the Cherries to all three points, but they still needed results elsewhere to go their way. 

The day started badly for Watford and got gradually worse as the match progressed. Craig Dawson conceded a penalty following Arsenal’s first attack of the game, which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyag duly slotted away. A debut goal for Kieran Tierney and a second of the day for Aubameyang put the Gunners 3-0 up after only 33 minutes, leaving Watford with the uphill task of rescuing the match. Two goals from Troy Deeney and Danny Welbeck left the game poised in the balance during the closing stages, but it wasn’t enough to save Watford, consigning them to their 20th defeat of the season. They were now relying on West Ham to beat Villa by at least 2 goals. 

Villa were dead and buried three weeks ago. Three back to back losses against Wolves Liverpool and Manchester United had them seven points adrift from safety. But a record of seven points from their last three games, including wins against Crystal Palace and Arsenal, had them in the best position possible to secure survival. Their game against West Ham struggled to spring into life for large parts, with both sides missing gilt-edged chances. Anxieties were heightened as the game dragged on, with news filtering through that Watford’s 3 goal deficit against Arsenal was now only 1. But with 84 minutes on the clock, Jack Grealish fired the ball past Lukasz Fabianksi in goal to score what could be his final goal for Villa. 

The goal sparked scenes of huge celebration from the Villa bench, only for them to be cut short as Andriy Yarmolenko’s speculative shot cannoned off Grealish’s outstretched boot, sending the ball looping over Pepe Reina in goal to make the score 1-1. A nervy few minutes ensued at the London Stadium as Villa desperately tried to ensure their point. As the final whistle blew, the news came through from the Emirates that Watford had failed to beat Arsenal, meaning that Aston Villa survived and Watford and Bournemouth were relegated.

At the other end of the table, the pressing matters of Champions League and Europa League qualification was still to be decided. Having been in the top four pretty much all season, all Leicester needed was a win against Manchester United to secure Champions League football for the first time since their remarkable title win in 2016. But an injury ravaged Foxes side that was missing James maddison, Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira have stuttered in recent weeks and that form continued against United. A penalty from Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard’s first Premier League goal since December 2018 were enough to secure the three points and seal United’s return to Champions League after a year away. The feat is even more remarkable given the fact that on Christmas day, they were in 8th place 7 points adrift of Champions League qualification. They now finish the season in 3rd place, while Leicester’s capitulation means they finish 5th qualifying for the Europa League. Despite the bitter disappointment of missing out on Champions League football, Jamie Vardy can at least be consoled by the fact that he picked up the Premier League’s Golden Boot award with 23 goals, the oldest person to do so at 33 years of age.

Chelsea also needed a victory to ensure Champions League qualification, but they had to do it against a Wolves side looking to cement their place in the Europa League. With new signing Timo Werner in the stands, a lot was at stake in what was largely a flat and uninspiring match. But two moments of magic just before half time from Mason Mount and Olivier Giroud gave Chelsea a 2-0 lead that they never let go of until the final whistle. Tottenham’s draw at Crystal Palace meant they snuck into 6th, beating Wolves to the final Europa League spot, while Sheffield United’s loss to Southampton saw them finish as low as 9th with Arsenal sneaking in just ahead of them in 8th. The results of the FA Cup and the Europa League could still change the course of Europa League qualification, however. Two extra spots could potentially become available should Chelsea win the FA Cup and Manchester United or Wolves win the Europa League. Arsenal could still qualify for the Europa League on their own merit, however, by winning the FA Cup next weekend. There is still a lot to be decided in the final few weeks of the season.

Dramatic Culmination to the Championship 

The Championship is never short on drama and this year certainly didn’t disappoint. West Brom, Brentford and Fulham were all going for the final automatic promotion spot on the final day and. With all sides drawing in the closing stages of their final games, it was effectively next goal wins. But West Brom held out in their 2-2 draw against QPR, while Brentford conceded in the last minute against Barnsley to lose 2-1. It meant that West Brom would make an automatic return to the Premier League at the second time of asking, while Brentford and Fulham would have to fight it out in the playoffs. 

The question of who would be joining them was still up for grabs, however. Nottingham Forest had been in the top 6 since Boxing Day and had looked solid in almost every department in the first few games following lockdown. But their slow collapse that started three weeks before in their 1-1 draw against rivals Derby County came to a head in the final minutes against Stoke. The Reds needed to beat Stoke in order to book their spot in the playoffs and, with a 6 goal cushion above Swansea, a top 6 finish looked nailed on. But after letting in 3 goals in 20 minutes, the Reds were on a tightrope. Then the news filtered through that Swansea had beaten ten-man Reading 4-1. The 6-goal swing necessary to boot Forest out of the playoffs had been achieved and the Reds were left to stew on how an implosion of this magnitude had been allowed to happen. 

Swansea’s victory means they joined their South Wales rivals, Cardiff City, in the playoffs. Their first leg victory against Brentford on Sunday night means they hold the narrowest of advantages going into the second leg, while Cardiff will be hoping to keep their incredible recent run of form going as they take on Fulham. 

The relegation battle at the foot of the table was itself full of drama, with as many twists and turns as the fight for promotion. Hull City had been on one of the steadiest declines in recent memory. Since the sale of Jared Bowen to West Ham and Kimil Grosicki to West Brom in January, the Tigers have been in freefall. Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to Cardiff was their 6th in a row, a run that also included the 8-0 humiliation at the hands of Wigan. Hull finished the season bottom of the table with their the worst defensive record for 60 years, conceding 87 goals this campaign. 

Wigan had been on an incredible run of form. Their 8-0 drubbing of Hull was evidence of the fact that they were fighting for their lives in the face of a potentially devastating 12 point deduction from the EFL. When the final whistle blew against Fulham they were as high as 13th, but the 12 point deduction sent them plummeting into the relegation zone. With an appeal already underway against the suspicious nature of Wigan’s descent into administration, their future remains uncertain, but it will not make the loss of their Championship status any less bitter. 

Barnsley had been bottom of the pile for huge swathes of the season and most people had them written off. But a last minute winner against Nottingham Forest 2 weeks ago gave them reason to believe there was still a faint chance of survival. Their final game of the season came up against promotion chasing Brentford and getting a result against a rampant Bees side seemed nigh on impossible. But in the last minute, once again, the Tykes came up good, with Clarke Odour’s goal being enough to secure a vital 3 points. It was a similar story for Luton Town who desperately needed a win against Blackburn in order to stay up. Two own goals from Blackburn proved to be the difference and, despite a 75th minute goal from Sam Gallagher to make the score 3-2, a nervy final few minutes at Kenilworth Road saw Luton walk out as deserving winners. Both Luton and Barnsley were now dependent on Charlton losing to Leeds in order for them to survive and, when the news of Leeds 4-0 victory came threw, the two sides promoted from League One last season knew that the job was done. 

With Leeds, West Brom and Aston Villa all in the Premier League, the Championship next season is looking the most competitive it has ever been. It will remain to be seen whether the sleeping giants in the division decide to take advantage of the new shift in power, or whether a new name will rise to fore to take the league by surprise.

Juventus Italian Champions Again

Juventus were crowned Serie A champions last night for the ninth time in a row. They had made it more difficult than they needed to with losses to AC Milan and Lazio in recent weeks, but Sunday night’s 2-0 win over Sampdoria sees them crowned as champions with two games left to play. It is only Maurizio Sarri’s second ever trophy as a manager, after he won the Europa League with Chelsea last season. The victory means, however, that they become the only side to win nine consecutive league titles in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Bayern Munich had matched their previous record of eight when they clinched the Bundesliga title earlier in the month. But this victory puts Juve back ahead as the most dominant domestic force in all of Europe. 

This season’s Serie A was the most competitive it has been for several years, with a resurgent Inter Milan, rampant Atalanta and spirited Lazio side all offering worthy challenges for the Scudetto. But it was Juve who ended up on top and, with two games left to play, Cristiano Ronaldo will be looking to overtake Ciro Immobile to bag himself the Golden Boot.

The rest of the season outcomes are pretty much wrapped up already in Italy. Inter, Atalanta and Lazio have all secured Champions League football for next season, while Roma, AC Milan and Napoli will fight it out for the final few Europa League spots. At the foot of the table, Brescia and SPAL have already been relegated to Serie B, while Lecce and Genoa will go into the final two matchweeks fighting for their lives.