With the title decided and the trapdoor closed on the bottom three, we already know the identity of the champs and chumps as the Premier League faces the final curtain for season 2016/2017, writes Liam Mackey.
That leaves the last-day top- four sprint — if that’s not too pulse-quickening a word and, you know, it almost certainly is — to keep us at least mildly engaged, with Manchester City and Liverpool odds-on to join Spurs as non-champions in the Champions League, unless Arsenal can capitalise on slip-ups, as unlikely as they would be unforgivable, by either or both of the teams currently above them in the table.
But while some fanciful permutations even allow for the possibility of play-offs and Sky Sports will still do their best to spin tomorrow as some class of Super Sunday finale, it’s hard to disagree with Roy Keane’s baleful take on the fab four hype.
“Do you think Real Madrid and Barcelona would be celebrating getting into fourth?” he scoffed recently. “No. Come on, get a grip. If you’re at a big club then it’s about getting your hands on a trophy. That’s the name of the game, the glory. For the big teams, the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools and Arsenals, to be celebrating fourth — I say, shame on you.”
Apart from noting that “the Manchester Uniteds” actually have nothing be ashamed about in this instance — since the best they can do is finish fifth and hope to gatecrash the Champions League via the backdoor of Europa League success — Keano’s frustration will be shared by all of those neutrals who found this season’s vin ordinaire hard to swallow after last year’s champagne surprise.
Speaking of which, herewith a few alternative awards with which to bring play to a close.
The Heroes to Zeroes award goes to the players of Leicester City — and not just because they shipped six against Spurs in their penultimate outing.
Yes, they lasted longer in the Champions League than any other Premier League contender — which, by the way, surely says a lot about the putative ‘greatest league in the world’ — and, yes, their achievement in hauling themselves away from the relegation zone would appear to have resoundingly vindicated the club’s decision to defenestrate Claudio Ranieri.
But the utterly transparent manner in which the team appeared to turn the tap off while the Italian was still in charge and promptly turned it back on again the minute Craig Shakespeare took over, is why Jamie Carragher offered this contender for Punditry Quote of the Year after the newly upbeat Foxes beat Liverpool 3-1 in February: “I’ve been watching football for a very, very long time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game of football where two teams should come off the pitch and hang their heads in shame.”
Antonio Conte is the Manager of the Year, of course, his wildly animated presence on the touchline just the iceberg tip of a man who kept his cool when the going appeared to be getting tough for Chelsea and, via intensive work on the training pitch and inspired man management, boldly reinvented and revitalised a side which had woefully underperformed just one season before.
But if you could hand out the gong to a gaffer who didn’t come within a lengthy touchline slide of silverware this year, it could hardly go to a more deserving recipient than admirable Sean Dyche who, thanks mainly to turning Turf Moor into a fortress, helped promoted Burnley to fight another day among all the much bigger boys. And in an era when common sense is anything but common among the elite bosses, the gravel-voiced Dyche stands out for his refreshing refusal to indulge in any grandstanding histrionics.
“I’m not The Special One, like Jose,” he said recently. “I’m only special because I’ve got ginger hair and 95% of the world’s population haven’t got ginger hair. Joking apart, I stay focused. I’ve seen football matches change so quickly and that’s why I don’t get involved. You don’t see me running up and down the sidelines when we score or after games. I just try to stay factual, focused, and it is real, authentic. This is not a spin. This is who I am — boring.” But good.
Harry Kane reinforced his strong claim to be considered the Player of the Year by hitting Leicester for four on Thursday, ending another season in which he burnished his reputation as the best homegrown striker England has produced since Alan Shearer. Chelsea and Spurs apart, this was not a season of great or even close-to-great teams in the Premier League but it was a season of great individuals.
The honour roll would have to include such outstanding talents as Kane, Alli, Hazard, Kante, Sanchez, Silva, Aguero and, a personal favourite, Philippe Coutinho, an extravagantly talented, game-changing player if ever there was one — with the always attractive added advantage of being one of yer actual boys from Brazil.
As such, the Liverpool playmaker has also been central to the stirring renaissance of the national team after he was left out of the squad which imploded at the 2014 World Cup. Now, with Tite at the helm and Coutinho on board, a resurgent Brazil have already become the first team to qualify for the 2018 Finals.
The poor goalies don’t often feature in the running for Player of the Year, still less a Number 1 with the Number 20 team who, going into their final day in the Premier League, have conceded a whopping 64 goals.
And yet Jordan Pickford, a Young Player of the Year nominee, made such a virtue of damage limitation as the last line of defence for a broken Sunderland side this season, that the brilliant 22-year-old is set to be at the centre of a close-season bidding war, with Manchester City and Everton said to be among his suitors.
The ‘Big Sam’ Award goes to ‘Big Sam’. Or ‘Telegraph Sam’ as I still prefer to call him after a newspaper sting showed him in an unflattering light and brought his briefest of reigns as England manager to a juddering halt. If, at one point, he might naturally have nurtured dreams of World Cup glory and perhaps even feeling the slight touch of steel on his shoulder as Herself intoned ‘Arise, Sir Big Sam’, well, at least he has the consolation of knowing that he did indeed end up at the Palace, doing what he does best.
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