Big Weekend: Liverpool v Spurs misery derby, Villa, Foden, Arteta, Championship final day

Dave Tickner
Liverpool forward Mo Salah, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, Manchester City player Phil Foden, Aston Villa coach Unai Emery and Spurs defender Cristian Romero
Could both teams lose at Anfield?

Liverpool and Spurs can wallow together in misery at Anfield, while elsewhere the teams that have left them behind in the title and Champions League races respectively can have their fun, and it’s calculator time on the Championship’s final day, which doesn’t this time look like it should produce a hatload of drama but nearly always does.


Game to watch: Liverpool v Tottenham
Everything’s turned from gold… into sh*t. This will be a great game for neutrals to watch, because everyone likes watching big teams be thoroughly miserable, don’t they? And these two teams are now thoroughly miserable.

Even a couple of weeks ago, this looked a huge game for the run-in, one that would have huge impact on both the title and Champions League places. Now it means absolutely nothing to either of those things and is instead an exercise in trying to end this season with some kind of momentum so as not to wreck the next one before it’s even begun.

Spurs have been absolutely awful for weeks and weeks now. They’ve completely lost everything that made them good and fun in the early weeks of the season and they are now neither. They’ve completely run out of ideas going forward and never really worried about having any – beyond ‘Micky van de Ven is very fast’ and ‘Cristian Romero is quite mad’ – at the back.

Liverpool’s situation is slightly different, of course. They’ve had a far better overall season, for one, but face even greater uncertainty moving forward. While Spurs are starting to have doubts about whether Angeball might turn out to have been an easily-countered scam, Liverpool are going to enter a summer that was already guaranteed to be full of uncertainty and shocks to the system with the added strife of not particularly playing well.

The good news for them is that at least they should win this Misery Loves Company derby handily enough. Should. Liverpool are a tired team playing below their best, while Spurs at the moment are just rubbish. They can’t even be gauged against their best, because they’re not producing a pale imitation of their best like Liverpool are; they’re barely playing the same sport.

And if watching Noni Madueke and Cole Palmer run at emergency left-back Emerson Royal doesn’t re-energise Mo Salah ahead of what might be his final few games in a Liverpool shirt, then nothing will. He should have a lovely time here.

But fundamentally it just no longer matters. Funny to think now of the hand-wringing and conspiracies and headlines the reverse fixture generated now that this one matters so very little. Spurs could even now adopt Tim Vickery’s suggestion from the time and make reparations for September’s VAR fiasco by simply letting Liverpool score unopposed. And let’s face it, if Liverpool get a corner or free-kick it will be pretty hard to tell whether the goal that comes from it was a #ClassyTouch from Spurs or just their now standard approach to the defending of set-pieces.


Team to watch: Aston Villa
Might have now b*llocksed up the Europa Conference a bit, which is frustrating not least because the domestic work is now essentially done. Tottenham’s complete and total collapse and remaining fixtures means Villa are surely now safe in fourth even if they don’t manage another point from their remaining three games.

They probably will get some more points, too, and that will probably start against a Brighton team whose collapse from a bright start to the season would make even Spurs blush.

And it really does highlight how far Villa have come even compared to last season’s seventh-place finish. It’s been a staggering turnaround from relegation candidates to European contenders to comfy Champions League qualifiers in less than two seasons under Unai Emery’s careful and thoughtful guidance.

But it will be interesting to see how they approach the weekend now. How safe do they feel in fourth? It should be ‘very safe indeed’ and they should now be throwing all remaining eggs into next week’s second leg against Olympiacos and trying to keep alive the hope of making a brilliant season unquestionably the club’s finest of the Premier League era by adding silverware to the Champions League ticket.


Manager to watch: Mikel Arteta
It’s a strange world indeed where the sight of Spurs being completely abysmal is in any way a troubling one for those of an Arsenal persuasion. They probably do now need to pin their hopes on an unlikely Manchester City stumble literally anywhere else.

Arsenal were clever enough to allow Spurs to leave the North London Derby with their dignity while Arsenal celebrated away with the points, but Chelsea had no such qualms and nor one suspects will Liverpool. Spurs are going to be complete wrecks by the time of the City game despite Arsenal’s best-laid plans.

Which is all a self-indulgently roundabout way of saying that all Arsenal can do now is what they’ve been doing almost – almost – flawlessly for several months now and simply continuing taking care of their own business. It probably won’t be enough but there’s no great shame in that.

What Arsenal do have once again is the opportunity to play their game this weekend before City and for Arteta’s lads to once again pile whatever pressure they can on Pep Guardiola’s side.

And Arsenal’s task on Saturday lunchtime is a significant one. Bournemouth have been a pretty good side for a pretty long time now. Since the start of November, only the current top four have picked up more points than Andoni Iraola’s side. It is not remotely facetious to suggest this is currently a bigger test of Arsenal’s testicular fortitude than Spurs were, and they will need to avoid any repeat here of the carelessness that allowed that game to become unnecessarily fraught.


Player to watch: Phil Foden    
Missed the Forest game last weekend through illness, and City missed him more than might have been expected. Not because Foden isn’t a wonderful player, but more because City generally cope handily enough without any one of their key players.

They’ve already coped handily enough without Foden in 4-2 and 5-1 wins over Palace and Luton this month, but Guardiola did at least have the option of bringing Foden in on those occasions had it been deemed necessary.

We’re pretty sure he would have done so against Forest even with his profound dislike of the very concept of substitutions.

Foden is perhaps the best single example of City’s absurd embarrassment of attacking riches. Last week’s absence may have been enforced, but he still played in only two of City’s five Premier League games during a crucial April. He scored five goals in those two games either side of sitting with his trotters up watching 4-2 and 5-1 wins. A Wolves team just tailing off as the season winds down – last week’s win over Luton was their first in seven – are now in his sights.


European game to watch: Girona v Barcelona
There’s precious little left in the way of title drama across Europe’s big leagues, but victory for Girona in this one would see them secure a Champions League spot with time to spare, which undoubtedly ranks among the season’s more remarkable achievements.

Assuming Real Madrid haven’t done anything silly against Cadiz earlier in the day, even a point for Girona here would also hand Real the league title. Which is a big deal if you like that sort of thing, we guess.


Football League game to watch: Birmingham v Norwich
It’s Championship Promotion, Play-off and Relegation Permutations Day! One of the great days in the football calendar. Let the easily pleased have their play-off final and its enormous purse; the real Championship MVP is the final day when dreams are realised or dashed all over the place.

This year’s, sadly, doesn’t look like being a vintage one. Seven of the 12 games technically have the potential to affect the promotion, play-off and/or relegation picture but an awful lot is already settled barring wildly unlikely results and mathematical chicanery. The Championship loves to serve up both, but still.

Huddersfield are almost certainly down, Ipswich are almost certainly up, Norwich are almost certainly in the play-offs, Birmingham are probably going down. But there’s still just about enough intrigue to go at with Plymouth still in serious danger and your Blackburns and the resurgent Sheffield Wednesdays of this world not yet quite mathematically safe either.

Sky have, in our opinion, dropped the ball with their TV choices by choosing to focus on an almost certainly moribund promotion race. Ipswich v Huddersfield and Leeds v Southampton are two of their three TV picks and while we can understand wanting to show live scenes of whoever seals promotion, it’s unlikely to be where the day’s best drama is to be found.

Southampton will finish fourth no matter what, while for Leeds to have anything to get excited about they will need a favour from a doomed Huddersfield that is vanishingly unlikely. By all means switch over if news filters through – as news always must on the final day – of an unlikely Huddersfield lead at Portman Road, but of the three games on offer your best bet for a bit of final-day drama is going to be Birmingham v Norwich.

It matters at both ends, which helps, with Birmingham still having semi-realistic hope of chucking a cat among the relegation pigeons should Plymouth fail to beat another play-off contender in Hull.

A Birmingham win over Norwich and Plymouth defeat would send the Pilgrims down, as would a draw for Birmingham and sufficiently hefty Plymouth paddling against Hull.

Wins for both relegation scrappers seems unlikely, but would bring Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday right back into it.

Norwich for their part are in the sort of position where the only ones with any doubt about the security of their play-off spot are the fans themselves, because football fans are by their very nature drawn, like moths to a flame, to the morbid appeal of the Worst-Case Scenario.

For Norwich to drop out of the play-offs they would have to lose to Birmingham while Hull beat Plymouth and produce a seven-goal swing, while West Brom would also need to pick up a point at least against Preston after a run of three defeats.

You’d have to say that is simply not all going to happen. Norwich fans won’t believe you, though, and any Nottingham Forest fans in earshot will suddenly break out in a cold sweat for some reason.