Familiar table positions, Manager of the Year, more EPL thoughts

Publish date:
Gareth Bale has been superlative for Spurs this season, but may jump ship to a bigger club.

Gareth Bale has been superlative for Spurs this season, but may jump ship to a bigger club.

1. The usual suspects. A year after the Manchester heavyweight contest was decided by a knockout blow at the bell, the Premier League was unable to squeeze any late suspense from the only truly meaningful battle left on the final day: a middleweight scrap between the two North London clubs for the fourth and final Champions League place.

When Laurent Koscielny scored a surprisingly athletic and shockingly easy goal at Newcastle after 52 minutes, it did not matter what happened to the other Northeast club, Sunderland, at White Hart Lane.

Newcastle had threatened in the first half. Papiss Cissé was particularly wasteful. But in the second half, Newcastle could not lay a glove on Arsenal and the Gunners won, 1-0. There was briefly a possibility that Arsenal might even pinch third, and with it a place in the group stages. But Fernando Torres' first league goal since December gave Chelsea a 2-1 home victory over Everton. So, Arsenal will have to play in the qualifying rounds. The two Manchester clubs, once again, complete England's quartet of Champions League entries.

Yet Arsenal's 16th consecutive Champions League season seemed unlikely at the start of March. In February, Arsenal had been humiliated, 3-1, at home by Bayern Munich and was on the way out of the Champions League. When it lost, 2-1, at Tottenham to fall seven points behind its rival it seemed in disarray. In its next match it won 2-0 at Bayern to salvage its pride. It followed that by going unbeaten in its final 10 league games to overtake Tottenham. Arsenal has now finished ahead of Spurs every year since 1996.

Curiously, this season has seen a reversion to old, old habits. Arsenal has scored four more goals than Tottenham, but it has conceded nine fewer. Only Manchester City's defense has been meaner than Arsenal's. The area that has been the Achilles' heel of Arsène Wenger's teams has again become its strength.

This has happened even though Thomas Vermaelen, who seemed the best of Arsenal's central defenders, has struggled this season and spent Sunday on the bench again.

Koscielny has continued his steady development as a player. But the most spectacular improvement has come from Per Mertesacker.

Even though he was an established German international when he arrived, Mertesacker still moved like a clumsy beanpole. Jamie Redknapp, an England international turned pundit said Mertesacker, who is 6-foot-6, had been bought to be "a head on a stick" for a team that struggled in the air. This season he has, increasingly, been the dominant presence in an Arsenal defense that is regaining its ancient dominant aura.

2. Bye-bye Bale? Before Sunday, people close to Tottenham seemed to be convinced that even if the club missed out on the Champions League, Spurs could keep its prime asset, Gareth Bale.

Spurs have been here before. Last season, after it finished fourth, one point behind Arsenal, and was squeezed out of the Champions League by Chelsea, Tottenham tried to hold on to Luka Modric. It failed and had no time to replace his creativity and has paid all season. In 2006, Tottenham lost at West Ham on the final day of last season to hand fourth place to Arsenal. It bungled its attempts to keep Michael Carrick that summer. He went to Manchester United. Tottenham spent the next four seasons struggling to get back to where it had been.

On Sunday, Tottenham pummeled Sunderland, rather helped by the fact that its opponent was reduced to 10 men for the last 15 minutes. Tottenham managed 35 shots. Bale took nine of them. The ninth, in the 89th minute, was the charm: a vicious left-footer with curl and pace into the far corner. It was his 21st league goal of the season. Tottenham won, 1-0. With a little more creativity and cunning, it could have been far more. It didn't matter. It reached 72 points, its best tally of the Premier League era. That didn't matter either, as Spurs again finished below Arsenal and out of the Champions League.

The way Andre Villas-Boas shepherded Bale to the center of the field, as the players said farewell to the fans for another season, suggested he wanted to make sure his star waved goodbye properly.

Bale seems to be grounded young man. It's certainly possible that he intends to remain loyal. But some very rich clubs with Champions League berths are going to start waving some very large sums of money in his direction very soon. That could change his mind.

Sunday's game contained an incident that might also have convinced Bale that he is a marked man in England. Andre Marriner, the referee, showed Bale a yellow card for simulation. It is the fifth time this season that Bale has been booked for simulation (twice by Marriner). The decision clearly left Bale infuriated and frustrated. If he believes he isn't being treated fairly, or protected, by referees at home, a foreign club could become more tempting.

3. Manager of the Year. You take over a club that has just won the Champions League and win the Europa League. Surely that's not an achievement to stick on your résumé. That hasn't stopped Rafa Benítez boasting this week.

One can understand his desperation. After a decade very close to (but not quite at) the very top of his profession, he suddenly found himself out of work at 50. It's tough finding a job at that age. Rafa was unemployed for two years. When an offer finally came it was only for a temporary position clearing up someone else's mess. It's understandable that while he's still in the spotlight he's busy selling himself as hard as possible.

Yet Rafa might have a point. The job he has done in one day under six months in charge at Chelsea may well be the best in the Premier League this season. He took over a team in third place. It finished in third place. He took over a team that was still playing in the Champions League and then delivered victory in a lesser competition. But the team Rafa took over, for all its depth of talent and experience, was doomed in the Champions League and in complete shambles. He sorted that out while also coping with the other, contradictory requirements, of a job had been too much for three other manages in the previous year and a half. He did it even though he was booed, jeered and undermined by the fans of the club.

Rafa reduced the role of the dominant and difficult veterans who barely a year earlier had driven out Villas-Boas. He built a cohesive team out of the expensive, and unbalanced, collection of undeveloped talents Chelsea had assembled. He also managed to coax better performances out of Torres, who scored to give Chelsea victory on Sunday.

Last season, Chelsea won the Champions League but could not finish in the top five in the Premier League. Chelsea ended this season looking like a growing force. Rafa has something to do with that.

4. A match too far. Manchester City and Chelsea have finished the season watching United's red taillights disappearing in the distance. Yet both have beaten United in recent weeks. Both will have new managers in place soon. Both already have squads deep with talent and will be recruiting more in the summer. Both have reason to believe they could take aim at next season's title with steely focus, right? Wrong!

Both are so desperate to grab every last dollar they can get their manicured and bejeweled hands on that they are ready to squander next season's chance before this season has ended.

On Thursday, Chelsea plays Manchester City at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, in a game, the City website gleefully reports, that sold out in 20 minutes. Two days later, the clubs meet at Yankee Stadium. That game is not sold out, so if you are a fan of extreme endurance events and like watching athletes trudging, exhausted to the finish line, you still have a chance to buy a ticket and reward the shortsighted greed and misplaced marketing strategies of the two clubs.

For both clubs, the competitive season began way back on August 12 when they met in the Charity Shield. City's problem all season is that it has looked jaded. Chelsea's final league game on Sunday was a club record 69th competitive game this season.

Chelsea will be back in action on July 17 when it plays its first preseason friendly in Bangkok. City starts playing in South Africa on July 14. It will also march its players through Hong Kong and Munich in its exhausting, lucrative preseason.

Six weeks rest might seem like a lot, but it's an illusion.

One reason clubs have been able to squeeze in these tours is that FIFA, guardian of the global soccer calendar, scheduled its end-of-season international dates for mid-June, creating a gap the avaricious could exploit. The Spanish players on whom both City and Chelsea rely could be in action as late as June 11. Other starts of both clubs will play when Brazil and France meet on June 9.

If Oscar, who made his 64th competitive appearance in Chelsea colors on Sunday, appears in that game, he will have been playing continuously since he made the first of his six Olympic appearances on July 26 last year.

Players need to recover. They certainly don't need to inflict more frequent flier miles and more jet lag on their battered bodies. It's probably good that Americans fans should have the chance to see the best players appearing in friendlies. Maybe the trip will allow Chelsea or City to add two or three long-term fans in Missouri. Yet its better for the clubs that those players should be capable of producing their best in matches that matter at the end of next season.

5. Manager of the last 20 years. Even with nothing on the line and nothing to prove, Alex Ferguson still managed to steal some of the last-day limelight from the clubs scuffling for crumbs further down the table. He bowed out with a spectacularly melodramatic 5-5 draw at West Brom.

Ferguson, who had said his goodbyes at Old Trafford last week, sent out a team largely made up of backups and youngsters. It raced to a three-goal advantage, wobbled, regained a three-goal lead and then blew it in the last nine minutes.

Many English fans dislike Fergie. The majority resent Manchester United. Yet it cannot be denied that his United teams, while never losing sight of the need to win, have generally been highly entertaining with a frequent flare for the theatrical.

Indeed, it seemed only appropriate that Fergie, the great stage manager, should somehow contrive that his last (he insists) game in charge of United should also be precisely his 1,500th as manager of the club. He will continue to lurk behind the scenes at Old Trafford, so his theatrical talent may not be entirely lost.