Doesn’t get much better than this season’s Champions League knockout stages.
That was the kind of real, legitimate, ball-tingling, non-manufactured drama that Chris Harrison touches himself thinking about.
In the end though, congratulations to Real Madrid and Liverpool. Not necessarily the two “best” clubs in all the land this season, but definitely the two most clutch. It is going to be one HELL of a final on May 26.
But for the moment it’s time to turn our attention back to the domestic leagues where the finishing stretch was shaping up to be as exciting as a fart in a bathtub but quietly – oh so very quietly – things are starting to get jussssssst a little interesting thanks to certain good teams playing bad and bad teams playing good. Which is to say that the battle for top four is (almost) back on and the relegation scrap is (almost) a legitimate fight, with several extremely important games on deck. Plus there’s one of these:
Yup, not a terrible little weekend ahead. So now let’s take a look…
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Reminder of what is still out there to play for right now:
TITLE: City – final answer.
TOP FOUR: the Mancs are in; Tottenham and Liverpool are edging towards locking up their spots but the fact that they – and especially the Reds – have been hemorrhaging points has given Chelsea an outside shot… with a game this weekend being make-or-break.
RELEGATION: Dead Brom is dead (their death certificate could again be officially signed this weekend); Stoke is in a bad, badddddddd spot (and could technically get relegated this weekend); Southampton has shown signs of life and is putting some legitimate pressure on the likes of West Ham, Huddersfield and (especially) Swansea. One slip up from any of them, especially the Welchies, would open the door for the Saints.
News, notes, observations, highlights and lowlights:
– United versus Arsenal went precisely how one would have guessed United versus Arsenal would go this season.
– Liverpool‘s B-team gave a D+ effort and a desperate Stoke still couldn’t find a winner. Sad!
– Dead Brom is suddenly unstoppable. Makes you wonder where a little bit of this kind of effort was the first seven months of the season.
– Chelsea is not normally an opponent that Swansea would expect to take points off of but it was in Wales and they really needed something from the game and did what they needed to do to stay within striking distance… but just couldn’t get it done in crunch time. Bad news for Swans fans (and ownership)
…but good news for neutrals hoping to watch some high-pressure games this month and even better news for Southampton, which are now close enough to smell the stank on Swans’ ass.
– Three points are three points for Spurs but…. WOOF. Not much of anything to play for this season (aside from locking up 3rd or 4th) and it showed big time against a Watford squad that hasn’t broke a sweat since February.
– UPDATE: Brighton officially avoided relegation on Friday afternoon by out United-ing United in a game that will remind anyone with a brain of the important of motivation in these last couple weeks of games.
Honorable mention: Chelsea, Burnley, Arsenal
Dishonorable mention: Bournemouth, West Ham, Huddersfield
PICKS OF THE WEEKEND
Liverpool is sitting pretty godamn pretty at the moment. Mo Salah’s current form is rightly being mentioned in the same breathe as Messi, they are sitting in 3rd place in the league, and they just punched their ticket to the Champions League final. Not bad, not too bad at all.
There is a dirty little secret that everybody should know though, and that is that there is a not insignificant chance that in a matter of weeks the Reds could finish outside the top four AND lose the Champions League final, meaning they would be playing in Europe League next season. That’s right. Liverpool has put itself in an incredible position to close out this season in style by lifting the biggest, baddest, sexiest, importantest trophy in all the land… but they also could be out on their ass taking cut-rate flights to Eastern Europe with Arsenal next fall if they don’t mind their P’s and Q’s.
That leaves Klopp with some important decisions to make coming down the stretch, Does he sit guys to maximize the chances they are healthy for the Real Madrid game? Or does he go at least semi-hard down the stretch to ensure Liverpool locks up a top four slot?
The quickest way to wipe the nightmare scenario off the board is simple: beat Chelsea on Sunday (or at least NOT LOSE) thereby locking Liverpool into next season’s Champions League and giving them the flexibility to rest up between then and May 26.
Easy peasy, right?
Bookmakers clearly think it is not going to be so straightforward for Liverpool, and I’d tend to agree. Chelsea still have the FA Cup final against United in two weeks but clawing a top four spot is arguably more important for the club (not that the players would necessarily agree). Either way the Blues come into the game as healthy as they have been all season and have quietly been playing much better soccer for the last month or so. Their big question, as always, is where the goals will come from (though we at least know where they are not going to come from).
If Liverpool ends up resting guys – unlikely both because of the importance of not losing and a severe lack of depth – I’d probably end up going with Chelsea to win, but assuming Klopp goes with his top XI (or thereabouts) I’m going with a 1-1 draw.
[Note: as intimated above, a draw for Liverpool would be jussssssst fine and all but assure them of finishing ahead of Chelsea]
The Cherries are not mathematically safe but they are pretty damn close, which makes the line on this game a little surprising considering unequal distribution of motivation. Then again Swansea have been ASS on the road lately. I’d say those factors essentially even one another out… 2-2 draw.
Gotta love Big Sam. Fans gave him like a 2 out of 10 in a questionnaire they were sent asking how much they liked him as a manager just a few weeks ago. In the three games since they have managed an ugly draw against Swans and ugly wins over Newcastle and Huddersfield – all three of the opponents in the bottom half of the table. Big Sam’s response:
Brilliant. I wish I had that kind of self-confidence. It’s not quite on the same level of ridiculousness as Marouane “I’m worth a £50 million transfer fee” Fellaini, but it’s pretty damn close.
Anyway, there’s really no obvious reason why Everton should win this game apart from how bad Southampton have been on the road (one win in 15 games – is that bad?). The Toffees, even while picking up points in four straight games, have looked painfully disjointed offensively while the Saints look like Mark Hughes finally figured out a way to light a fire under their asses. That said, I can’t help thinking that Big Sam is going to make his inevitable exit from the club as messy as possible by continuing to get results… ugly, ugly, results. Everton to win 1-0.
Other picks (to increase the odds I eventually get one right):
• STOKE vs PALACE: a loss this weekend could seal Stoke’s fate but Palace, aside from the recent 5-0 demolishment of Lester, has more or only done as well as Willy Zaha has played. Call me crazy but I kinda like the chances of Kurt Zouma (but not necessarily Ryan Shawcross) holding him in check – more so than Lester or Brighton have in recent weeks anyway. Stoke to win 2-1.
• WEST BROM vs TOTTENHAM: The Zombaggies suddenly turned into a real live professional soccer team for the first time all season this last month, which is a credit to caretaker manager Darren Moore who probably deserves to get some votes for coach of the year. They will make it tough on Spurs but their recent four-game points streak was largely against bad and B-teams. Tottenham need to lock up a top four finish and will play an A-squad. Spurs to win 2-0. (Moral of the story: what is dead may never die… bye bye Brom.)
• LESTER vs WEST HAM: I’m sure I sound like a broken record at this point but the Foxes have been sleepwalking since March, while West Ham is still just close enough to the relegation scrap that they have to put in a serious shift. The Hammies are in dire need of a roster overhaul this summer and their inability to win a game like this should be Example A. I’m going 2-2 draw.
• WATFORD vs NEWCASTLE: Two teams with little to play for. The Hornets actually showed a little backbone against Tottenham on Monday but came away with nothing to show for it. If they put in that kind of effort again on Saturday they should be just fine. Watford to win 3-2.
• CITY vs HUDDERSFIELD: The champs have quietly been murdering fools since Liverpool dropped the hammer on them in Champions League. Good luck with that Huddy. City to win 4-0.
• ARSENAL vs BURNLEY: Low-key intriguing matchup as Arsenal have just been booted out of Europa and have nothing to play for other than the shame of potentially finishing behind none other than, yep, this weekend’s visitors. Hard to imagine the Gunners won’t be both a bit tired and suffering a post-disappointment hangover, though anything but a loss would go a long way towards “successfully” securing 6th place. 1-1 draw.
REST OF WORLD
Spain – ¡EL CLASICO TIME! Really wish Barcelona had not won last weekend (thus clinching the title) so that Real Madrid would have had the motivation of not wanting them to celebrate on their home turf. As it is though we still get to watch two of the best clubs in the world lock horns, and pride alone will be enough to ensure that both go hard on Sunday (1:45pm CT on beIN).
Italy – Napoli welcome Torino on Sunday (8am CT on beIN) but are in need of some serious help in the Scudetto race after they got tripped up by Fiorentina last weekend, meaning Bologna need to come up big on Saturday’s visit to leaders Juventus (1:45pm CT on beIN), which has a four point lead with three games to play.
Germany – Four games remain in the Bundesliga this season and Bayern have long since wrapped the title but the race for Champions League slots is all sorts of interesting. Right now Hoffenheim (52 pts) has the inside shot with Bayer (51) and RB Leipzig hot on their heels. Unfortunately the Powers the Be at Fox won’t be showing any of the three teams on TV this weekend so best bet is instead BVBabyjesus hosting mid-table Mainz on Saturday (8:30am on FOX).
So there we have it. Got some makeup games in EPL scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to help shepherd us through the work week, which will be followed by “Championship Sunday” (or whatever it is being marketed as) next weekend when everybody plays at 9am CT. Here’s hoping there will be some stuff to play for…
I’ll be back with a midweek blog and another for next weekend… and we’ve still got the FA Cup final and Champions League final the following two weekends… then it will be officially time to start fluffing our sports boners in preparation for the one, the only, the World Cup. Haters will try to hate on it but trust me when I say everybody is going to get balls deep into it when the time comes. And, who knows, maybe something absolutely insane will happen and barstool will produce some new content to help get your mind right before and during the tournament… crazier things have happened, after all. (Emphasis on maybe.)
Anyway get pumped, stay pumped, and have yourselves a mighty fine weekend.
PS: Good Magic in the Derby. Thank me later.