It was an anxious final day across the Premier League, more nervous, in the end, at the bottom than at the top. Manchester United and Chelsea clinched the final Champions League spots, leaving Leicester City in the Europa League, where it will be joined by sixth-place Tottenham. Bournemouth beat Everton and Watford mounted a vain late comeback at Arsenal, but both were relegated with Norwich, as Aston Villa drew at West Ham to secure a remarkable survival.
For Leicester there is a strange sense of not quite knowing whether this is a season to be celebrated or not. Other than the title-winning season of 2015-16, fifth represents its best finish since 1963. It improved on last season, has qualified for Europe, reached the semifinal of one Cup and the quarterfinal of the other. But, given how things began, how could it not be viewed as a disappointment? At the time of the shutdown in March, Leicester led fifth-place United by eight points. It’s won just three of its last 14 games, and that allowed not only Chelsea but also United to pull ahead in the race for the top four.
To retake a top-four place on Sunday, Leicester needed to beat United, or to draw and for Chelsea to lose to Wolves. But Chelsea was a comfortable winner over Wolves, thanks to two goals in first-half injury time.
Frank Lampard notably left out the most expensive goalkeeper in history, Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has let in a higher percentage of shots on target in the Premier League this season than any keeper since Opta began collecting the data in 2003. How much of a factor that was is hard to say, but Chelsea was far less shambolic defensively than it has been in recent games. It was tight until the moments before halftime, when Mason Mount struck with a brilliant free kick. Olivier Giroud added a second three minutes later, his sixth in his last seven games.
Having to win, Leicester opened up in the second half, which rendered it vulnerable to the counter. Sure enough, eventually Anthony Martial broke into the box, where he was bundled over by a combination of Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan. Bruno Fernandes converted and Jesse Lingard sealed the points in injury time after being gifted the ball by Kasper Schmeichel.
Tottenham’s 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace meant it took sixth place and Europa League qualification, but not all is lost for Wolves by finishing seventh. They can still qualify for Europe–either the Champions League by winning the Europa League, or the Europa League if Chelsea beats Arsenal in next Saturday’s FA Cup final.
For a time, it was possible to argue that there was something almost admirable about Watford’s willingness to go against conventional wisdom and sack managers as soon as results began to falter. But over the past year the policy has collapsed into chaos, and the season of the four managers ended in recrimination and relegation and a late rally that wasn’t quite enough. The two games after the dismissal of Nigel Pearson brought two defeats and the concession of seven goals
Having fallen behind to an early Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty, Watford fought back but then conceded again, against the run of play, to a 24th-minute Kieran Tierney goal, his first for the club. Aubameyang added a third with a spectacular finish as Watford failed to deal with a simple long throw-in. But where there is David Luiz, there is always hope for the opposition, and he conceded a record fifth penalty of the season–more than 10 of the Premier League clubs this season. Troy Deeney converted, and Watford rallied. Danny Welbeck pulled another back, but it was too little, too late.
Bournemouth had to win to have a chance of survival, and it did so with a measure of style. A Josh King penalty put it. Ahead after 13 minutes and, although Moise Kean leveled on 41 minutes, Dominic Solanke had restored the Bournemouth lead before halftime. Junior Stanislas made it 3-1 with 10 minutes to go.
That meant Bournemouth would stay up if Aston Villa lost to West Ham. It remained 0-0 at the London Stadium until the 84th minute, when Jack Grealish put the away side ahead. But barely had the celebrations stopped when Andriy Yarmolenko cut inside and hit a shot that deflected off Grealish and looped cruelly in, denying Villa its first away clean sheet of the season and leading to a fraught final five minutes plus injury time.
But Villa held out, meaning it had taken a remarkable 10 points from its final four games of the season to pull off a nail-biting escape and relegate Bournemouth after five years in the Premier League.
And with that, the longest and most unusual of seasons came to an end.