This weekend, one of the biggest names in professional sports won the title after a thoroughly uninspiring display. Renowned for doing just enough to secure a win and nothing more, the championship was claimed at the end of a performance utterly devoid of flair and steeped in cynical gamesmanship. Money and glory was won, and bad tastes were left in the mouths of millions. And no, I’m not talking about Floyd Mayweather. If you were out and about this weekend, you missed the Blues doing what was expected of them, United failing to get the job done, and Aston Villa turning on the afterburners. We’ll get you caught up.
We all knew this was coming. Say what you will about Chelsea’s style of play- and there is indeed much that could be said- but it just won them the title. Their performance at home against Crystal Palace was in many ways the stereotypical Chelsea 2014-15 game— cautious, probing play through most of the first half, a penalty call coming right before halftime, followed by the parking of every single bus south of the Thames through the second half. It was scrappy and wholly uninspiring. But if you do that enough times, you win titles, and winning titles is all José Mourinho cares about.
I’ve been following soccer for a while and I still shake my head at how quickly things can change. Just last month, United were flying high and seemed to be on course to returning to the Champions League, while a stumbling Liverpool were all but removed from Top 4 contention. And then the Red Devils dropped three games in a row- including Saturday’s home loss to West Brom, courtesy of an incredible butt goal (which, scientifically speaking, is the best kind of goal). Coupled with Liverpool’s win against QPR, United are back to having to fight for fourth place. By most accounts they should be able to hold on, but then again by most accounts they should’ve beaten West Brom at home. So, who even knows at this point.
I’m not big on rubbernecking, but I have to admit that watching Newcastle’s slow-mo implosion this season has been a fascinating—if discomfiting—experience. The losing streak extended to eight on Saturday, with probably-getting-relegated Leicester taking the lead within the first minute and putting the game out of reach just after halftime. And the scoreline wasn’t even the worst part of Newcastle’s day. Defender Mike Williamson got himself two yellow cards, the second after a challenge that should’ve been a straight red. Daryl Janmaat also got himself sent off in stoppage time— not that it mattered by then, but that’s now two key players that won’t be available for at least part of Newcastle’s run-in. After the game, Carver showcased his composure and professionalism by angrily throwing his players by name under the bus, notably by accusing Williamson of getting himself sent off on purpose. The aftermath of the game included a press release from Williamson defending his honor, reports of a shouting match between Fabricio Coloccini and Tim Krul, whispers about the former supposedly being being stripped of the captaincy, and rumors of the club reaching out to hire Derby County manager Steve McClaren as soon as this week. Anyway you slice it, Newcastle is a hot mess. They’re now two points above the relegation zone with three games left, and you get the feeling that if they do manage to stay up it will owe more to the other teams below them performing worse.
Call it The Tim Sherwood Effect. Call it a collective sense of panic that comes with being in a relegation fight. Call it Christian Benteke adhering to the Four Demandments of Hulkamania. Whatever it is, Aston Villa are scoring goals and winning games, and they’re doing it pretty much in the nick of time. Putting three goals past Everton- ostensibly one of the more defensively solid teams in the Premiership- isn’t easy. But from a team that went entire calendar months without scoring, this turnaround is one of the most remarkable stories of the Premier League’s fifth act. (Oh, and they’re in the FA Cup Final at the end of the month, no big deal.) Of the handful of teams hovering just above the red line, Aston Villa are probably the team most likely to stay up, and it will be no less than they deserve.
Of the three teams that came up this season, Burnley were the ones I hoped would find a way to stay up. That said, their current predicament is not that surprising. Burnley were clearly focused on not making mistakes, which worked for all of 24 minutes. Michael Duff conceded a penalty, got himself sent off (unfairly, probably, but it didn’t matter), and Kevin Nolan converted from the spot. Burnley spent the next hour and change trying to get back into the game while down to ten men, and they simply didn’t have enough in the tank. The Clarets are bottom of the table, eight points from safety, and can find themselves relegated next weekend even if they win their game against Hull. (If they lose, it’s definitely over.) That’s the harsh lesson of the Barclay’s Premier League. You can have fitness, you can have mental and intestinal fortitude, you can have tactics, you can have team spirit. But if you don’t have the goods, you don’t survive.
It wouldn’t be in summeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer…