Any club actually want a Champions League spot?

Another weekend of Premier League action is in the books. Aside from Liverpool’s near-certain march to the title, here are some other reactions.

Does anybody actually want a Champions League place?

The title race is done, Liverpool 16 points clear of Manchester City with a game in hand, so now we must look elsewhere for some entertainment. And the good news is that it could come from the race to qualify for the Champions League.

Actually, race is probably the wrong word. It’s more of an undignified scramble, a collection of teams tripping over each other as they desperately grasp for a spot in next season’s European elite. Again, a word that almost seems inappropriate given the collective incompetence on display near the top of the Premier League.

The teams in positions two to five managed a single point between them this weekend, slumping to defeats that were variously unexpected and inevitable, drawing in ways that have become very familiar, tossing points around willy nilly. Of the last 60 points available to those sides — City, Leicester, Chelsea and Manchester United — only 38 have been won, and now a Wolves team who can barely fill their bench (more on them later) are on the shoulders of the pack.

Chelsea, in fourth place, have 39 points from their 23 games: at the same stage last season you would’ve needed 47 for that position. Same for the season before that. 46 for the season before that. There is one brilliant team in this season’s Premier League and the rest are just about keeping their heads above water.

All of which is not to say it won’t be entertaining, because chaos usually is. But as Liverpool stride relentlessly, imperiously, confidently clear, the rest are tripping over like drunks with their shoelaces tied together.


Steve Nicol says Mohamed Salah’s up-and-down play for Liverpool this season drives him wild.

Are teams playing Liverpool’s aura?

Liverpool’s win over Manchester United on Sunday put them 30 points ahead of their old rivals. The aim for United from last season would have been to close the gap on Jurgen Klopp’s side, but instead it’s widening: they were 31 back from Liverpool at the end of last term, and by the end of this one it could be nudging 50. For a point of reference, the most points United have ever finished in front of Liverpool in the Premier League era is 37, in 2011-12.

The odd thing about Sunday’s game at Anfield was that for long spells Liverpool absolutely battered United, but thanks to a couple of disallowed goals and some passed up chances they didn’t pull ahead as they should have done. Indeed, United had a couple of extremely presentable chances, most notably for Andreas Pereira and Anthony Martial that could easily have sent the result in another direction. Liverpool were, very nearly, hanging on at the end before Mohamed Salah’s brilliant counter-attack clincher.

In that respect it was similar to the win over Tottenham last weekend, in that Liverpool asserted their superiority so emphatically it was almost embarrassing, but the opposition missed some chances that could have taken the win away from them.


Steve Nicol is unsure about Man United’s ability to replace their current squad with superior players.

It’s interesting that Spurs and United both snatched at the chances they had, which could well be something to do with the aura Liverpool have established in this ridiculous unbeaten run, stretching back over a year now. Teams have often seemed to ‘play the aura’ in terms of their tactics, and that could extend to opposition forwards not taking chances too: it’s easy to see how they could think “This is Liverpool, I need to score this” and put extra pressure on themselves.

Whatever the reason is, Liverpool will be champions soon. They need ten more wins to confirm their Premier League title, and that relies on everyone else picking up maximum points. As the schedule stands, their tenth game from this point is at the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City.

Sheffield United continue to impress

It was a little odd that after the 1-1 draw between Arsenal and Sheffield United, both managers seemed convinced that Arsenal had been the better team who just didn’t finish their chances, given that they only had one shot on target in the second-half and United missed three free headers.

It might be a stretch to say Sheffield United were the better team at the Emirates, but it was telling that Chris Wilder looked disappointed to only draw. At this stage of the season, the last newly-promoted team to be doing this well was Ipswich Town in 2000-01, and the Blades only six points off the Champions League places. They’re incredibly impressive.

Where are Manchester City’s centre-backs?

It remains profoundly strange that Manchester City, probably the most lavishly-funded project in the history of football, have gone through this season without anything by way of convincing central defensive cover. This isn’t even about Fernandinho playing there, which still remains one of Pep Guardiola’s more confounding pet projects, but that they have allowed themselves to reach this stage with John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, two players that Guardiola clearly doesn’t trust, rotating according to whichever one has made a mistake most recently.

Of course, the timing of the Aymeric Laporte injury, just after the end of the summer transfer window, was not ideal but even then they were understaffed. Watching Vincent Kompany walk away in the summer without replacing him looked silly at the time, but now it just seems negligent.

Credit must be offered to Steve Bruce

Let’s preface this by saying it was still a mistake to let Rafa Benitez walk away from St James’s Park in the summer, but it would only be fair to Steve Bruce to note that after 23 games of last season Newcastle were a place above the relegation zone with 21 points. This season, they’re 12th with 29.

Perhaps you could argue the circumstances are slightly more favourable for Bruce, but that would probably be churlish. Bruce himself acknowledged his side aren’t “great to watch”, but pretty football is very much a rung or two down the list of priorities at Newcastle. Brucie: fair play.

Southampton need to start keeping hold of leads

Southampton’s revival under Ralph Hasenhuttl has been pretty extraordinary since that humiliation against Leicester, but there are still a few things to iron out. Holding onto a lead, for one thing: since the start of last season, Southampton have dropped 42 points from winning positions.

That sounds like a lot, because it is: it’s 13 more than the next most in the Premier League.

Wolves stumble on despite injuries

Still, perhaps we should give more credit to Wolves for turning the latest result around, which was probably even more remarkable given the resources available to Nuno Espirito Santo. Their side basically picks itself at the moment – not because they have a defined first XI, but because there isn’t anyone else.

It’s like a Sunday league team at the moment, in that the team is comprised of whoever shows up and can run: their bench on Saturday featured only one senior outfield player (and that’s if you consider the 21-year-old Morgan Gibbs-White a senior player), and Nuno is becoming more and more dissatisfied about the resources available to him.

Wolves are sixth in the table, level on points with Manchester United, which given the circumstances is one of the more extraordinary performances in the Premier League.

West Ham are in some trouble

It wasn’t just because of the David Moyes connection that the visit of Everton was huge for West Ham at the weekend. They’re only a point outside the relegation zone and their upcoming fixture list reads like they’ve angered some furious deity somewhere: they face Liverpool twice, Manchester City, Leicester and a comparative breather against Brighton.

Make no mistake, they’re in real trouble.

‘What was he thinking?’ moment of the weekend

Steve Cook. I mean….Steve Cook. Sure, strange things happen to your head when things start going wrong and you don’t know where your next point is coming from, but what on earth was he thinking when he leapt and twisted in the air to produce an admittedly brilliant save against Norwich? Did he think he’d get away with it? Did he forget about VAR? Or have Bournemouth reached the point of desperation where knowing you’ll certainly be sent off and concede a penalty but might — might — prevent a goal is worth it? After four points from the last 39, sadly the answer is probably ‘yes’.

Luckiest moment of the weekend

Watford probably deserved a win over Tottenham on the balance of play, but they were just 10 millimetres away from Erik Lamela’s bundled effort going over the line. A quick search reveals one closer call, when Preston’s Alan Browne was 3.68mm away from scoring against Wigan in 2018, but you won’t find many closer in the Premier League this season.

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