With Arsenal’s 4-1 thrashing of Wigan to officially put the Latics out of their relegation-embattled misery - and Manchester United wrapping up the title race damn near a month ago - I was worried the final-day Premier League drama just wasn’t going to be up to snuff this year.
Sure, we’re unlikely to have as epic of a finale as we did last year anytime soon, but watching three or four teams cling to hope at the bottom of the table – coaches and reserves anxiously checking phones during a match for an update on the latest news from across the league, supporters cheering when the team right above them in the relegation battle gives up a goal that may vault their own squad out of the drop zone – is what makes the final day of the Premier League schedule so magical. Everything is happening simultaneously. Every goal matters.
Take 2004/05, for example, which gave us easily the tightest relegation battle in Premier League history. Going into the final matchday of the campaign, not a single squad had been eliminated. Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace, and West Brom all had a chance to stay up. West Brom was stuck at the bottom of the table. A 2-0 win at Portsmouth resulted in a subdued celebration as fans, coaches, and players nervously checked their phones and radios waiting for news from the other matches. Norwich was thumped 6-nil by Fulham, but Southampton looked to be in good shape after taking a 1-0 lead against Manchester United, and Crystal Palace led 2-1 at Charlton Athletic. West Brom was in trouble. But oh how things can change. Manchester United rallied with goals by Darren Fletcher and Ruud van Nistelrooy to relegate Southampton with a 2-1 loss, and Charlton equalized on a Jonathan Fortune header to draw the match at two – meaning Wigan, who started the day in last, vaulted all three squads and out of the drop zone, safe on a measly 34 points. As the news came down, pandamonium ensued:
2010/11 saw a similarly dramatic conclusion, though we may need a timeline to do this final day justice:
Kickoff: West Ham had last place locked up, but five squads had a chance at the remaining relegation spots. Coming into the day, Wigan (39 pts) and Blackpool (39 pts) were in the drop zone on goal differential while Birmingham City (also on 39 pts), Wolves (40 pts) , and Blackburn (40 pts) sat just above them – by no means safe. Drop zone: Wigan, Blackpool
21′: Ji-Sung Park scores for Manchester United - Manchester United 1, Blackpool 0. Drop zone: Blackpool, Wigan
23′: Jason Roberts scores for Blackburn - Blackburn 1, Wolves 0. Wolves still sit two places above the DZ, ahead of Birmingham City on goals scored. Drop zone: Blackpool, Wigan
38′: Brett Emerton scores for Blackburn – Blackburn 2, Wolves 0. Wolves are technically still safe, but they’re living dangerously and are passed by Birmingham City on the table on goal differential. Drop zone: Blackpool, Wigan
40′: Charlie Adam scores to knot things up at Old Trafford - Manchester United 1, Blackpool 1. Blackpool jumps from 19th to 17th and out of the DZ on goals scored. Birmingham City, still tied with Wolves on points, edges them on goal differential and is safe. Wigan drops back to 19th on goal differential and is joined by Wolves in the DZ. Drop zone: Wigan, Wolves
45′: Junior Hoilett scores for Blackburn – Blackburn 3, Wolves 0. This evens Wolves up with Wigan on goal differential, but Wolves stay one place ahead of them on goals scored. Drop zone: Wigan, Wolves
Halftime: This is when things start to get interesting..
49′: Roman Pavlyuchenko scores for Spurs against Birmingham City – Tottenham 1, Birmingham City 0. Birmingham drops from 16th to 19th on total points. Wolves, still even on points and goal differential with Wigan, is vaulted from the DZ on goals scored. Blackpool moves up a spot on goal differential, and Wigan gains a spot on points. Drop zone: Birmingham City, Wigan
57′: Gary Taylor-Fletcher scores to take Blackpool 2-1 up at Manchester United. Nothing changes on the table, but Blackpool is now on 42 points and looking good. Drop zone: Birmingham City, Wigan
62′: Anderson scores to draw United back with Blackpool at 2. No movement on the table, but things get much triciker for Blackpool as they go level on points with Wolves and Wigan. Drop zone: Birmingham City, Wigan
73′: Jamie O’Hara scores to draw one back for Wolves against Blackburn - Blackburn 3, Wolves 1. Although nothing changes on the table, Wolves draws even with Blackpool on goal differential. Drop zone: Birmingham City, Wigan
74′: Blackpool’s Ian Evatt scores an own goal against Manchester United to doom the Tangerines – Manchester United 3, Blackpool 2. All of a sudden, Blackpool drops from 16th to 19th on points while Birmingham City sits just above them on goal differential. Wigan jumps out of the DZ for the first time and Wolves move up into 16th. Drop zone: Blackpool, Birmingham City
78′: Wigan would help their own cause with a Hugo Rodallega goal to take a 1-0 lead over Stoke and give them a little breathing room at the bottom of the table. They jump into 16th on points, but the DZ remains stagnant. Drop zone: Blackpool, Birmingham City
79′: Craig Gardner scores for Birmingham to draw level at 1 against Spurs. Out of nowhere Birmingham gains a point and passes Wolves on the table on goal differential, sending Wolverhampton back into the DZ with only 10 minutes left in the season. Drop zone: Blackpool, Wolves
81′: Michael Owen wraps things up at Old Trafford with a goal to make it 4-2 United. Blackpool put up a good fight, but without at least a point, they are doomed to the Championship. The table stays the same, but Blackpool would need two goals in the final 9 minutes to keep their Premier League hopes alive. Drop zone: Blackpool, Wolves
87′: Stephen Hunt scores for Wolves to make it 3-2 Blackburn. Three minutes from death, Hunt’s goal draws Wolves even with Birmingham City on goal differential, but they edge out the Blues on goals scored. Birmingham replaces them in the DZ. Drop zone: Blackpool, Birmingham City
90′: Roman Pavlyuchenko seals Birmingham’s fate in the final minute of the campaign with a goal to make it 2-1 Spurs, dropping Birmingham to 39 pts, one less than Wolves.
Final Whistle: Blackpool and Birmingham City finish with 39 points and join West Ham in relegation. Wigan, who spent the majority of the day with one foot in the Championship, wind up three points clear with 42 while Wolves escape by the skin of their teeth with 40. Blackburn may have gotten a little nervous with that late Stephen Hunt goal, but they were always in control and finished four points clear with 43.
To fully understand the chaos that day, check out these snippets from the Soccer Saturday panel as the action unfolded:
We’re not going to get that kind of drama this year with the title and relegation races being officially sewn up, but there are still three extremely decent matches with European implications to flip between this Sunday afternoon:
Tottenham v. Sunderland – 11:00am, Fox Soccer
Arsenal v. Newcastle – 11:00am, ESPN2/ESPN3.com
Chelsea v. Everton – 11:00am, Fox Soccer Plus
Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea: two out of three of them are in the Champion’s League, but technically none of them are safe from a 5th place finish (emphasis on the ‘technically’ – save for a 0-8 Chelsea loss and an 8-0 Tottenham win, The Blues will at the very least secure 4th).
Chelsea is the only squad sitting pretty this weekend; we’re unlikely to see a 16 goal swing in differential that would see them drop into 5th (though one can hope..). Still, there’s an incentive to finishing third, and Chelsea need a win at home against Everton to guarantee that. It’s a toss-up between the Blues and the Gunners as to who has the toughest matchup this weekend – Chelsea get the tougher opponent, but they get them at the Bridge.
Arsenal have the most to lose or gain. A loss to Newcastle could leave them on the outside of the Champion’s League picture looking in, but a win could vault them past Chelsea into third place so as to avoid that pesky CL play-in match.
As for Tottenham? Well, you’ll find no bigger Newcastle fans this weekend than at White Hart Lane. An Arsenal loss or draw and a Tottenham win means Spurs will reign supreme in North London. A Champion’s League berth means more to Tottenham this year than usual – it may be the only way they retain the services of Gareth Bale (though that’s still far from guaranteed), without whom they would not even be in the conversation. First thing’s first, though, Spurs have to take care of business against Sunderland. The bad news for Spurs is Newcastle isn’t exactly the world-beater it was last year. The good news, however, is they still have the quality to take a point or three from Arsenal – especially on their home turf.
An Arsenal buddy of mine pointed out that a 2-1 Arsenal win and a 0-0 Chelsea draw would level the two clubs on points, goal differential, and goals scored, thus forcing a playoff for third place. I think we can all agree that’s the only way we’ll be able to replicate the sort of final-day drama we’ve grown accustomed to.