Big Weekend: Man City and Arsenal go for the title, Klopp farewell, Leverkusen eyeing history

Dave Tickner
Declan Rice, Erling Haaland, JUrgen Klopp and Cole Palmer.
Declan Rice, Erling Haaland, JUrgen Klopp and Cole Palmer.

A curious Premier League final day lies in wait. A lot is settled. A lot else appears extremely predictable. It could be a massive anti-climax, but the flipside is that if something unexpected does happen we could get one of the best final days ever. Either way, though, it’s definitely BIG.


Game to watch: Manchester City v West Ham
Obviously. Things can only get interesting elsewhere if they first get interesting at the Etihad. And this is where neutrals on the hunt for messy drama are in luck.

Because while we clearly all expect Manchester City to beat West Ham and confirm an unprecedented fourth English league title in succession, history suggests this is the one time during a title run-in when they might deign to make it interesting for the rest of us. They’ll still win in the end, they always do, so it will be grisly for Arsenal fans but the rest of us should at least get a show.

Steven Chicken wrote after the Fulham win about Manchester City’s ‘competency porn’. After the Spurs game in which City took another huge step towards the title we gave most of the conclusions over to Spurs because it was just far easier and more interesting to write about the unexpected or unusual things they, their manager and their fans were doing than the extremely predictable things City were doing that they always do.

City fans aren’t bored of their success, despite how often you hear it. That’s just the rest of us projecting.

But it can be hard for the rest of us to summon up much excitement about them. Because they really are just thoroughly ruthless when it comes to this stuff. Arsenal have had one bad day in half a season and that has proven one bad day too many. When the next step on the criticism ladder is ‘only drawing at Man City themselves’ you get an idea of just how hard it is to do anything against Pep Guardiola’s team. The ludicrous truth is that Arsenal were doomed from the moment they lost successive games to West Ham and Fulham at Christmas.

But for all their relentless, efficient, all-conquering opposition-stomping run-in smarts, what City do still occasionally like to do is throw in a final-day curveball if someone manages to drag them that far.

Four of City’s seven Premier League titles have been won on the final day, and only one of them – inconveniently against the Hammers themselves but never mind that – passed off without much incident and a 2-0 win in a game they only needed to draw anyway.

Aguerroooooooooo we all know about but also really comes from a different time altogether, doesn’t it? Seems a stretch to include that in a discussion about what City are now. But that leaves two more. Two more that have come in their current guise at the end of a run of Barclays-clobbering form that has left Liverpool shaking their heads, hoping for a miracle and being granted the cruellest glimpse of it.

Most famously, City found themselves 2-0 down against Aston Villa in 2022 with only 15 minutes remaining. They needed only six of those 15 minutes to make it 3-2.

And even in 2019, when they would end up beating Brighton 4-1 to break Liverpool’s hearts, Jurgen Klopp and his men will always have those glorious 83 seconds between Glenn Murray’s opening goal and Sergio Aguero’s equaliser when all things seemed possible.

It will be David Moyes’ final game as West Ham manager and while he joked they would be lucky to beat City’s Under-14s, we fully expect Jarrod Bowen to open the scoring on 25 minutes and the fact City will still lead 3-1 by half-time and run out 4-1 winners is neither here nor there.


Team to watch: Arsenal
And if anything is happening at the Etihad, it’s split-screen time for reaction from the Emirates. Arsenal fans celebrating a West Ham goal will be slightly less funny than the idea of them celebrating a Spurs goal, but never mind.

We got their reactions to Son Heung-min not scoring a goal, and that was if anything even better. Certainly enough to reassure any Spurs fans who were worried they might have got Tuesday night wrong after being told off by Martin Samuel, Oliver Holt and a former Celtic manager who doesn’t understand rivalries that no, they had in fact got it absolutely spot on.

No favour was forthcoming from Spurs and, whatever the fans thought of it, Arsenal can have few quibbles with Tottenham’s players. In fact, the opposite is true: Spurs fans might reasonably ask where that level of performance has been in recent weeks and months, because it would have been plenty good enough for victory against at least 16 or 17 other Premier League teams.

But Arsenal still have to take care of their own business if they are to have any hope of exploiting any unexpected slip at the Etihad, and a relaxed, in-form Everton is not perhaps quite as straightforward an opponent as it might have been.

It does feel important for Arsenal to win this game no matter what else happens. There will still be bottling talk because banter demands it, but Arsenal will at least be able to know that – like Liverpool in 2019 and 2022 – this time it’s just not a remotely fair or good-faith take.

Win this and Arsenal have 16 victories, one draw and one defeat from their last 18 Premier League games of the season; you simply cannot compare that to last season when they won only three of their last nine and drew twice from 2-0 up.

Arsenal have already exceeded last season’s points total. Win on the final day and they will match City’s title-winning 89 from a year ago. It almost certainly won’t be enough this time but they can point to definitive improvement both technically and mentally as well as mathematically if they ensure they at least avoid any distraction and sort out their side of things on Sunday.

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Manager to watch: Jurgen Klopp
So farewell, then, Jurgen Klopp. The Premier League will not be the same without you. We mean that most sincerely, and it does all feel a bit of an anti-climax that his final game as Liverpool manager is a home game with Wolves that has absolutely nothing riding on it for anyone. Sometimes that’s just the way things go.

With Xavi pulling a Jordan Belfort at Barcelona and Thomas Tuchel apparently considering doing likewise at Bayern, we imagine there are still Liverpool fans out there daring to dream Klopp might do likewise, but he really does seem like a man whose mind is made up.

He might have secured only one of the four prizes Liverpool pursued this season, but he still departs as one of the great managers of the Premier League era. He sits right up there with your Fergusons, your Wengers, your Mourinhos and the Pep Guardiolas of this world having won every major trophy in England as well as the Champions League. It irritates us more than it should that Liverpool messed up such a very presentable opportunity for completeness that this year’s rare foray into the Europa League offered, but never mind.

He and his team have made the Premier League a far less boring and far less predictable place and we are genuinely grateful for that. We do not and will not hold any truck with any ‘only one title’ chat either. Not when that ‘only one title’ sits as it does as a lone island of red in a seven-year ocean of light blue.

Klopp’s one Premier League title in this era is worth so much more, and it will always be the one that ended Liverpool’s 30-year wait.

His greatness is assured, but we are a touch surprised at how much we suddenly realise we’re going to miss his big daft smile and his grumpy reaction to literally any defeat and his dizzyingly entertaining teams.

Arsenal have found a way to go toe-to-toe with City and fair f*cks to them for that, but they’ve done it by becoming City themselves, by exerting a measure of suffocating control over games that squeezes the life out of all but the best or luckiest opponents. Klopp’s Liverpool always felt like more of a counterpoint to City. More chaotic, less controlled, less reliable – daft as that sounds given their own absurd winning runs either in direct battle with City or when streaking so very far clear of them in 2019/20 – but a bit more fun.

Arne Slot has huge boots to fill.


Player to watch: Cole Palmer
Only needs five goals to make the Golden Boot fight interesting again. You can do it, Cole! He’s the player to watch, though, primarily because he hasn’t quite been the player to watch in the last few weeks.

There’s no real criticism here given the season he’s had, but given quite how much Chelsea appeared to be Cole Palmer FC when going down grimly in his absence against Arsenal, in the last few weeks – Chelsea’s best weeks of the season by a considerable margin – he hasn’t quite been at his sharpest. He’s scored only twice in his last five games after an absurd run of 10 goals in five Premier League games. And yet Chelsea still have four wins and a draw from 2-0 down at Aston Villa in those five games.

They are, somehow, now firmly in the box seat for sixth place and a return to Europa football of one kind or another and could even pinch fifth should Spurs obligingly go full Spurs at Sheffield United. The fact that’s even possible is genuinely mind-melting; Tottenham were 14 points clear of Chelsea 10 games into the season before their infamous meeting at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

That they were in any position at all to cash in on the struggles of Spurs, Newcastle and United was due in large part to Palmer’s efforts in dragging them through the more difficult parts of the season.

He got himself a goal against Brighton in midweek, and would very much like to round of his spectacular breakthrough season with more of that against Bournemouth even if Haaland has once again gone full Goalbot 4000 to deny us a deeper level of interest.


Football League game to watch: Bolton v Oxford
A fascinating League One play-off final between Bolton – a club who were in the Premier League as recently as 2012 and attempting to continue an all-the-way-down-and-all-the-way-back journey – and Oxford United whose own descent took them from a brief pre-Premier League top-flight dalliance all the way out of the Football League altogether by 2006.

Bolton will start as clear favourites having finished the regular season 10 points clear of Oxford and beating them 5-0 at the Toughsheet as recently as March, but Oxford have lost just once since that day and will fancy their chances after Bolton showed some signs of sloppiness in a slightly freewheeling semi-final success against Barnsley in which they lost the home leg after winning away. We don’t expect it to be 5-0, is what we’re saying here.


European game to watch: Bayer Leverkusen v Augsburg
There really is startlingly little left at stake in terms of title success or even Champions League qualification across Europe’s major leagues, so let’s all instead sit back and see whether Xabi Alonso’s relentlessly ridiculous Bayer Leverkusen can complete an unbeaten league season at home to Augsburg and leave themselves just two games away from the genuinely unthinkably absurd achievement of a fully unbeaten season across all competitions.

Only Atalanta in the Europa League final on Wednesday and Kaiserslautern in the Pokal next weekend would then stand in their way.

It leaves some interesting decisions for Xabi Alonso. The temptation to rest key players for Wednesday night’s objectively bigger and more important task must be overwhelming, but an unbeaten season is not something to be casually risked.

Luckily it doesn’t really matter. Because we all know Leverkusen will just snag themselves another 97th-minute equaliser if need be.