For almost 45 minutes on Sunday, the final day of the Premier League season promised to deliver a little drama.
One of the three clubs battling for the two remaining Champions League spots, Manchester City jumped into an early three-goal lead at Watford and eventually thrashed a team saying goodbye to manager Walter Mazzarri with a performance that showed what it thought of him, 5-0. Long before halftime, City was safe in third place.
Things were more interesting at the Emirates and Anfield. Arsenal, needing to win, jumped into an eighth-minute lead against Everton, lost Laurent Koscielny to a red card and then went two goals up. As halftime neared, the 10 Gunners had taken fourth.
Meanwhile, Liverpool struggled at home against relegated Middlesbrough. The Reds could (should?) have conceded a penalty. Europe was receding when, just before halftime, Boro, inevitably, cracked. Georginio Wijnaldum lashed Liverpool ahead with a powerful near-post finish.
In the second half, Liverpool relaxed and added two more to win, 3-0.
It no longer mattered whether Arsenal could hang on. It did, to win, 3-1 and end the season on a five-match winning streak, but its two-decade run of Champions League appearances ended, leaving plenty of questions hanging in the balance over the future of Arsene Wenger, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and beyond.
At the top of the table, cemented champion Chelsea, having fallen behind to another relegated team, Sunderland, wound up winning 5-1 before getting its time with the trophy and giving John Terry an emotional send-off.
In all, the top six hit 25 goals on Sunday, an emphatic reminder that the status quo has been restored.
All the big six, as well as Everton, the seventh-wealthiest club, finished with more points than last season. It is a measure of the more intense level of competition at the top that Arsenal, which came second last season with 71 points, totaled 75 but finished in fifth.
Last season, Leicester showed what can be achieved with talent, hard work and team spirit. This season, Chelsea showed what can be achieved with talent, hard work, team spirit and loads of money.
The stakes have been raised again.
Tottenham's Golden Boy
Just about the only other mildly interesting issue still to be addressed on the final day was resolved even earlier on Sunday.
At Hull, Harry Kane rapidly scored two in the first 13 minutes and finished with a hat trick in as Spurs won 7-1. Kane’s opening salvo meant he had hit five goals in just over 40 minutes of soccer. On Thursday at Leicester, three of his four goals came after 63rd minute. In four days, Kane jumped from third in the scoring race, two goals behind Romelu Lukaku (who scored once on Sunday), to first, four goals ahead.
Kane made it look easy because, for the Premier League, it was. He filled his boot with gold against two depleted, disorganized and demoralized defenses. Yes, he scores less often against the best defenses, but the same goes for all top strikers. Good defenses are harder to score against.
In two games that hardly mattered, since Spurs were certain to finish second, Kane retained his ruthless and remorseless hunger. So did his teammates. Hull might have been doomed, but Spurs had ended last season at Newcastle, another relegated club and, sulking after their title hopes died, capitulated in a five-goal humiliation. This season, Spurs kept going. Its reward was largely symbolic: Kane’s Golden Boot, a Spurs Premier League points record and the double of fewest goals conceded and, overtaking Chelsea on Sunday, most scored. Maybe that effort is a sign that this Tottenham team is growing. Or perhaps it was simply wasted energy.
After White Hart Lane: Tottenham's new stadium
Mourinho's meaningless moaning
There might have been doubters, yet once again this season, José Mourinho has delivered. After all this time, he can still find fresh and creative ways to talk rubbish. He remains the Specially Irritating One.
On Sunday, at home to Crystal Palace, Mourinho chose pretty much a youth team. Many United fans had seen it coming and stayed away. Those who were there will have left happy. They like their youngsters at United and, on Sunday, Mourinho, for just about the first time in his career, won with kids. Josh Harrop, on his debut, scored. Paul Pogba, just about the only man on the field likely to start against Ajax in the Europa League final on Wednesday, hit the other in a 2-0 victory.
Mourinho is upset, just for a change. He believes United has been punished for success. It has won the League Cup (wow!) and reached the Europa League final (double wow!). He is unhappy that United will have played 37 games since the start of January, which is, as he points out, one fewer than 38 (the number of matches in a Premier League season). Sunday’s match came four days before it met Ajax in Stockholm. Mourinho and United can pretend it finished sixth because it wasn’t trying in the last month of the season, rather than because it dropped so many points in all the other months of the season.
You might be fooled, it’s unlikely that Sir Alex Ferguson is. In 2008-09, his United team was also punished for winning the League Cup by playing 37 matches after the start of January. It also played a league game three days before a European final. That game, at Hull, was also meaningless. United won anyway. There were two crucial differences: the game was meaningless because United had already clinched the Premier League title, and later that week it was in the Champions League final not the Europa League.
Ferguson’s United lost that final to Barcelona. Yet, even if Mourinho’s United beats Ajax, the Europa League and League Cup are rewards for mediocrity. Ferguson was also a master of creative moaning, but his United teams often faced similar fixture congestion and still won major trophies, even with kids.
New soccer jerseys, kits for the 2017-2018 season
Chelsea's transfer needs
This summer transfer market promises to be particularly crazy. It is easy to see where some teams need to spend their millions: Liverpool (defenders, a ball-winning midfielder, a goalkeeper), Manchester City (defenders, a ball-winning midfielder, a goalkeeper), Arsenal (defenders, a ball-winning midfielder, maybe a goalkeeper), Manchester United (you get the idea). Yet at Chelsea the question is trickier. Roman Abramovich is reportedly prepared to spend £200 million (or $260 million) to strengthen a champion.
Perhaps Antonio Conte will leave for a Milan club or Diego Costa will shop his bullishness to China. If not, how do you improve a team that is almost perfect?
Conte knows he was lucky to win the the league with, essentially, 13 players. He needs depth for the added matches in European competition and cover for those who will be injured next season, but how can he foresee who that will be? It's probably best to start with defenders, a ball-winning midfielder and a goalkeeper.
The Brexit mystery
Clubs might be entering this transfer season worrying not only about a player’s position but his passport.
Brexit is already having an economic impact. The fall in of the pound is making it more expensive to compete with Euro-zone clubs for players. Politically, Brexit might also allow the UK government and the Football Association to restrict the ability of clubs to either hire or field foreign players.
Under a formula drawn up by the FA and enforced by the immigration services, non-EU foreign players must be regular internationals to qualify for a work permit to play professionally in Britain. How often they need to play for their country depends on its FIFA ranking, with the threshold being 30% of games for a top-10 nation, but rises rapidly past 70% beyond that.
Clubs are lobbying to ensure that this rule is not applied non-British EU nationals, roughly a third of Premier League players.
If those rules are applied, the wealthy, as usual, will suffer least. The richest clubs tend to buy blue-chip internationals, and barely a handful of first-team squad members at the top six clubs will be affected. Yes, work-permit restrictions would cause carnage in the bloated youth systems at Manchester City and Chelsea, but since those players never make the first teams, does it really matter? Further down the Premier League, such rules will bite. Leicester, for example, would not have been able to sign N’Golo Kanté or Riyad Mahrez, both Parisians, if they had not been EU citizens .
Clubs are lobbying the government to have soccer players exempted, but the FA may prove a more difficult adversary. It wants to build a better England team, and, freed of EU labor law, might be able to impose quotas on clubs. Even if teams are only required to find three British starters, Manchester City and Chelsea will be in deep trouble very fast.
Perhaps that explains the intense interest in Kyle Walker, Ross Barkley, Jordan Pickford and even Jermain Defoe.
The bidding will be in sterling.