Game to watch – Liverpool vs Middlesbrough
It would be lovely if I’d had a choice between three or four matches, but really it comes down to this. After a season during which the battle for a top-four place has been more competitive than ever more, it seems fitting that this is the only storyline left unresolved.
We’ll ignore talk of a Champions League play-off because it makes my brain hurt, and instead focus on the simple fact that if Liverpool can beat Middlesbrough at Anfield, they will be back in the Champions League for only the second time in eight seasons.
It should be a doddle. Middlesbrough have won one away league game this season, at Sunderland. They have scored ten times away from home, compared to Liverpool’s 42 in the league at Anfield. They have been relegated, and are coasting towards the Championship. Middlesbrough do not need this; Liverpool do.
And yet those home supporters filing into Anfield will be haunted by The Fear, certain that if an early goal does not come then they will find their opponents impossible to break down, and then find themselves vulnerable to set pieces. They will know that Liverpool have been at their best this season when blending freedom and intensity against those at the top of the league, teams who want the ball as much as them. Liverpool have been at their worst when facing lower-ranked teams happy to camp in their own penalty area, but with a quick winger and a capable centre forward. That describes Middlesbrough perfectly.
For a manager who is constantly touted to be on the edge of crisis, this is a suitable end to Jurgen Klopp’s first full season in charge at Anfield. Win and he will have succeeded, achieved the highest reasonable expectation for Liverpool’s season, taken his club back into the Champions League and can move into this summer optimistic of landing most of his transfer targets.
Lose, and the knives will again be out in certain quarters. Liverpool will end the season with nothing but Thursday night football and transfer targets may again choose to go elsewhere. Still, at least Arsene Wenger would be happy.
Players to watch –Harry Kane, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku
I’ll level with you, I wrote this on Thursday afternoon:
‘With frightfully little to be sorted out beyond Liverpool’s attempt to beat Middlesbrough, all eyes turn to the race for the Golden Boot. I’d always assumed that players weren’t particularly bothered by the award, but that doesn’t seem to be true. In front is Romelu Lukaku, stuck on 24 goals for a while and facing a trip to Arsenal on the final day. Score once and he will surely at least claim a share of the trophy, but fail to do so and Harry Kane and Alexis Sanchez could both catch Lukaku.’
Yeah they bloody could. Kane’s majesty on Thursday means he has one hand on the honour, despite missing two months of the season through injury. Unless Sanchez or Lukaku do something silly (and would you really back against Kane doing something silly against Hull?), he’s going to win another bloody gong. He really is the real deal.
Team to watch – Manchester United
I promise that’s not a sick joke, given the dreary fare of Wednesday night. It was no shock to see Manchester United play with overwhelming apathy against Southampton – Jose Mourinho promised as much – but it still jarred against our hardwired expectation of United to see them so unarsed.
Mourinho has promised more of the same at home to Crystal Palace on the final day, spreading several thick layers on top of his already obvious digs at the Premier League and pleas for sympathy.
“I hope that Big Sam shows he’s a good friend and they go slow. He tells Zaha to go slow, he leaves Benteke at home. I hope he goes soft on us.” Mourinho said. It’s impossible to to read that while wincing at how much it is dripping in classic Jose.
The result or performance against Crystal Palace doesn’t really matter, but it will be interesting to see how difficult it is for Mourinho to conjure up a good performance against Ajax on Wednesday without taking any form of momentum from their previous matches. Mourinho is a man for finals, but he must accept his own role in United’s league season drawing to tedious end. Surely he must want to end on a high before flying to Stockholm?
It also gives those players picked on Saturday a chance to show their manager than they can be trusted, either on Wednesday or beyond. Marcus Rashford can tell you all about the importance of youngsters impressing on their first starts.
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Manager to watch – Arsene Wenger
Given his continuous refusal to clarify his future, it seems unthinkable that this could be Wenger’s last ever match at the Emirates Stadium and his last ever Premier League game. We have repeatedly read headlines that Wenger will leave in the summer, yet it certainly sounds as if he is making plans for at least another year.
Given that a majority of Arsenal supporters do not wish Wenger ill but would like him to move on, that says little for the club’s estimation of the thoughts of those fans. We saw a boycott at the Emirates on Tuesday with at least ten thousand empty seats, and the mood on Sunday will also be interesting. There is certainly no sense that they are waving fondly goodbye to their manager as he walks off into the sunset.
Should Arsenal qualify for the Champions League, Wenger will at least be able to enjoy post-match celebrations that will cloud any protests over his retention as manager. Yet if, as is likely, Arsenal are consigned to the Europa League, Wenger’s PR bluster about it not being a disaster will fall on angry ears. It’s hard to see this ending well.
Football League games to watch – Bradford City vs Millwall
With the FA Cup final at Wembley next Saturday, the League One play-off final has been moved to this weekend. I’m happy with that, as it means we do not have a Football League-free weekend and an English football-free Saturday.
Bradford and Millwall finished fifth and sixth in League One this season, but beat Fleetwood and Scunthorpe in their respective semi-finals. Having finished fourth in 2015/16, Millwall will have been hoping for a top-two place but would take promotion at Wembley to regain their place in the Championship after two years.
Bradford lost only four times in the league but turned victories into draws far too often to merit automatic promotion. They haven’t been in the second tier since 2004, but under new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp are finally on an upward trend. Ticket prices are low, community schemes are thriving and a city is back in love with its club.
European game to watch – England U17 v Spain U17
Juventus can win the Serie A title and Real Madrid can do the same in Spain, but there is only one game in Europe you should watch this weekend. On Friday evening, England’s exciting Under-17 team play Spain in the European Championship final. The final!
We say this so, so often but, win or lose, this team really does need to find a pathway to competitive, top-flight football. Jadon Sancho of Manchester City is the star, but how does he get past Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane or Kevin de Bruyne? Twelve of the 18-man squad are at current top-six clubs, so how do they make it without being loaned out three or four times until their entire appetite for the profession is eroded away?
This team is a fresh, forward-thinking, exciting group of players that are now favourites to be champions of Europe for the third time in seven years. Now try and tell me there isn’t a problem with pathways to the top.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
“Who’s got the big game? Mike’s got the big game,” Dean can be heard chanting to himself in the shower.
‘Oh boy, Michael, Martin and Anthony are going to pretty pissed off that they have missed this one,’ he thinks to himself. ‘Imagine me giving a penalty in the last minute, West Brom scoring and sending Swansea City down. I’d have to scale a fence and run away, like the referee in that old Nick Hancock clip.’
Dean got dried and dressed in double quick time, pointing at himself in the mirror before giving a brief motivational speech and smiling at the memory of making that ‘Pep talk’ joke to Guardiola. You could tell he was laughing inside.
Having walked downstairs slowly, touching the ceiling above as he passed like they do at Anfield, Dean entered the kitchen to find his wife already with a mouthful of toast. She was reading the paper.
“Hey darling,” she exclaimed, crumbs going everywhere and prompting Dean to mime booking her for reckless making of mess. “It’s a shame that there is nothing on your game today, isn’t it?”
“BE QUIET,” Dean shouted. “Any more dissent and I’ll give you a second yellow. It’s an important day. Swansea could go down.”
“No Mike, I’m right. It says here that Swansea are on 38 points and Hull City 34. It’s all over.”
Dean turned from the kitchen, flounced out of the front door and sat in his car, moodily munching on a Frosties cereal bar. Why did she always have to ruin it? Why did she always have to spoil his fun? It’s the last day of the season. It’s Mike Dean day. At least f**king pretend.
“And it does matter what I do,” Dean said out loud involuntarily. He pulled his thick Laws of the Game book from the glove compartment, and looked up ‘points deductions’ in the index…
Ten live matches to watch
England U17 vs Spain U17 (Friday, 7pm, British Eurosport 2)
Argentina U20 vs England U20 (Saturday, 8.30am, British Eurosport)
Bayern Munich vs SC Freiburg (Saturday, 2.30pm, BT Sport Extra 1)
Bradford City vs Millwall (Saturday, 3.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Napoli vs Fiorentina (Saturday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 2)
Juventus vs Crotone (Sunday, 2.00pm, BT Sport ESPN)
Liverpool vs Middlesbrough (Sunday, 3.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Watford vs Man City (Sunday, 3.00pm, Sky Sports 2)
Malaga vs Real Madrid (Sunday, 7.00pm, Sky Sports 3)
Lazio vs Inter Milan (Sunday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 1)
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey