Man City, Chelsea and Man United all have trophies on the mind. Ryan Mason has a Tottenham job to keep. Liverpool need goals and vengeance.
Can Ilkay Gundogan make goalscoring history?
It would not be the most impressive marker Manchester City have set in recent years, but few achievements seem quite as fitting: Gundogan is on course to become the lowest-scoring top scorer for a Premier League champion.
Chelsea were previous kings of the collective in the 2004/05 season, when Frank Lampard netted 13 times on their stroll to the title. Manchester City do feel like natural successors in that regard, favouring clean sheets over goal fests. Gundogan was mirroring the former Chelsea manager in terms of timing, movement and prolific finishing at the turn of the year but he has only started one of their last five Premier League games and scored once since mid-February. The only danger might be that a teammate catches him but Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling (both nine), Gabriel Jesus (eight) and Phil Foden (seven) are all far enough behind in the scoring stakes to give Gundogan (12) breathing space. Manchester City might just raise this bar by lowering it.
Will Sergio Aguero go out on a high?
That trait of sharing the goals around more evenly has been partially born out of the injury struggles endured by Sergio Aguero in his final year at the Etihad. The striker has been Manchester City’s top or joint top goalscorer in every campaign since he joined aside from last season and surely this one, hitting the target just four times in 17 games.
The 32-year-old stands on the periphery of history. Aguero ranks fourth for all-time Premier League goals (182), with third-placed Andy Cole (187) in his sights. He is also one strike off equalling Wayne Rooney’s record of most Premier League goals for a single club (183). Pep Guardiola has already publicly promised the Argentinean opportunities in the final four games of the season as Aguero, whose only Champions League start in 2020/21 came in the first group match, is unlikely to feature heavily in the final unless absolutely necessary. Considering Newcastle – against whom he has 15 Premier League goals – are one of Manchester City’s last domestic assignments, Aguero might yet extend his legacy on these shores if this is to be his encore in England.
Is this their year?
But May 29 will come to define Manchester City’s season. The Carabao Cup is essentially club property at this stage, while a seventh league championship is a remarkable achievement given the crossroads they arrived at in November when it genuinely felt as though the Guardiola project might be abandoned by either party. The board, manager, players and fans, however, realise that will be unfairly overlooked by many if it is not accompanied by the Champions League.
Manchester City have matured considerably in Europe this season, embracing the weight of expectation and carrying it impeccably through each stage. They are the first team to win both legs of their last-16, quarter-final and semi-final ties in the same competition, conceding four goals in 12 matches along the way. It is a ludicrous achievement but few will remember it if Chelsea beat them in Istanbul and render this just another campaign of domestic brilliance tinged by eventual continental disappointment. Guardiola has contested 23 one-off finals and won 19, losing the German Super Cup in all three of his attempts at Bayern Munich and falling to Real Madrid after extra-time of the 2011 Copa del Rey. He has the showcase pedigree to make this Manchester City’s greatest year.
Can Lindelof establish himself alongside Maguire?
The claim that Manchester United ‘are comfortable with’ Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof ‘competing’ to partner Harry Maguire, allowing them to sign ‘a less experienced, cheaper defender instead’ to save some potential Jadon Sancho money, might be met with derision from an already disgruntled fanbase. Neither have managed to particularly convince that they are reliable suitors to play alongside the captain, whether due to injuries, form or a combination of both.
But Lindelof has quietly grown with the responsibility this season. His 26 Premier League starts have returned 15 victories, nine draws and only 24 goals conceded, with his last of two defeats coming in November against Arsenal. Without him Manchester United have played 14 games, drawn two, lost four and conceded 19 goals. Doubts might persist over his long-term suitability but Lindelof must use these last few domestic matches and a Europa League final to fully justify Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reported decision to focus funds on other positions for the time being at least.
How will they navigate three games in five days?
It remains to be seen if even they go ahead as planned, but the upcoming run of three games in five days is a knackering prospect for any team, never mind one at the end of a specifically exhausting season with a cup final on the horizon. Manchester United can take solace in the fact their Premier League position is pretty secure and that hat-trick of matches is not of the utmost importance, but it still provides a unique test of management from Solskjaer and his players.
The Norwegian has found it difficult to rest certain players. Bruno Fernandes seems to have some sort of creative control written into his contract. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is rarely out of the team. The 427 different injuries Marcus Rashford is playing through will likely catch up one day. Some poor sod might have to break the news to Maguire that he is going to have to miss at least a minute of Premier League football. And Solskjaer must juggle all the inherent fitness issues along with a possible loss of momentum if he gets the rotation wrong from May 9 to May 13, with the Europa final less than a fortnight later.
Are they capable of getting the job done?
Their challenge is similar to Manchester City’s in that the perception of this season will inevitably be almost entirely dependent on the outcome of a European final. Manchester United have closed the points gap atop the Premier League table and done relatively well in both domestic cups, with Solskjaer showing more tactical acumen as his squad have developed together. He has even won a semi-final! Yet a distant second place and a runners-up medal would be difficult to spin into anything more than a qualified and pretty unsatisfactory success.
Again, that might be unjust. No team should have their progress judged on the basis of 90 decontextualised minutes in a whole season. But Manchester United will be such heavy favourites on May 26 that failure to lift the Europa League trophy might be as damaging as those previous four consecutive semi-final defeats combined. Solskjaer must be wary of feeding into the notion that he has done excellently but needs replacing for this team to take the last step towards a trophy. Managers have eventually been sacked for less.
Should they focus on finishing in the top four?
The risk when you combine an unexpected shortcut with the more conventional route is that you get lost and end up in a ditch somewhere. Chelsea will not trip all the way up into the dreaded Europa Conference League but there is a danger they spin two Champions League plates for so long before smashing both. While winning the competition outright would secure qualification for next season’s edition, it would be wise to remove that pressure and maintain their current position in the Premier League’s top four.
Chelsea have six fixtures remaining, with a pair of league games slotted into their schedule ahead of cup finals. They visit Manchester City and host Arsenal before the FA Cup showdown with Leicester, who come to Stamford Bridge three days later in a week that culminates with a trip to Villa Park. Six days after that is the Champions League final but by that point the Blues will hope to have kept their grip on fourth place. West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton are all within nine points so Chelsea have to stay sharp.
Can Thomas Tuchel keep his winning record in finals?
Any manager who has won more finals than they have lost deserves immense credit. It is a unique test of tactical acumen, mental resolve and the ability to act and react, a one-off match with parameters that are otherwise impossible to replicate and can only be planned for to a certain extent. Many variables cannot be controlled yet modern coaches are judged more than ever on their trophy collection, or lack thereof.
Tuchel has won five of the nine cup finals he has reached throughout his managerial career. He has emerged victorious in the DFB-Pokal and Coupe de France so will hope to add the FA Cup to that quaint domestic group, while his Paris Saint-Germain spell was smattered with more modest silverware. The defeat to Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League was his first in four finals and, to add to the bad omens, his first cup final loss was inflicted by Pep Guardiola. Tuchel or Brendan Rodgers will be taking home a first trophy in England either way, mind.
Is a new striker needed?
The accepted wisdom is that Chelsea will sign a prolific centre-forward this summer to mask their one remaining deficiency, much like Manchester City. Erling Haaland has been linked with both. Yet that overlooks the impact a bona fide striker would have on the styles of both teams. A goalscorer cannot simply be dropped into the starting line-up of either without it affecting the way they play, the way they move, the little interchanges and the connections teammates have built up over time. It would require a degree of sacrifice in terms of both personnel and approach.
For Manchester City, at least Sergio Aguero is leaving. There is a reason for them to target a centre-forward. But in Chelsea’s case it is on Timo Werner and Kai Havertz in particular to prove the folly of such a chase. They have 12 and eight goals respectively this season amid justified struggles to settle at Stamford Bridge. This last month needs to be spent persuading Tuchel of their significance to the side and thus the pointlessness of bringing in an external striker who might not be as suitable and synergistic to the system.
Can they salvage Champions League qualification?
With 15 points still available, Liverpool are seven behind a Chelsea side that has played a game more. It is a sizeable gap but not an insurmountable one, even if West Ham do complicate matters further. Five matches in 16 days will decide Liverpool’s fate, with each of their opponents either having little to play for or focusing on priorities elsewhere.
Southampton are safe and have won twice in 16 attempts since Ralph Hasenhuttl’s tears soaked their victory over the champions in early January. It will be Manchester United’s last of three games in five days as they look towards the Europa League final. West Brom’s relegation should be confirmed by the time they host the Reds, with Burnley assured of the opposite fate. And Crystal Palace have been on a socially distanced beach for months. Liverpool have a Champions League opportunity almost in spite of themselves. It is time to do what they have failed to so far this season and thrive under that pressure.
Which result will Klopp avenge?
It is worth revisiting that fixture list: four of their remaining games are against teams who either beat or drew with them in the reverse match. Southampton visit Anfield after that memorable victory at St Mary’s, while trips to Old Trafford and The Hawthorns might rekindle memories of awkward draws either side of the new year. The visit to Turf Moor offers another route to revenge after Burnley pierced their cloak of Anfield invincibility in January.
No team has ever done the double over Klopp’s Liverpool yet the teams currently in 15th and 16th have a genuine chance against a distracted and damaged side. On the other hand, Crystal Palace might well be motivated by the prospect of repaying their own 7-0 defeat in December.
Will the forwards finally explode?
Klopp has kindly ruled selfishness out as a contributing factor but it remains to be decided precisely what is afflicting Liverpool’s forwards in front of goal. A total of 39 shots were worth just two points against both Leeds and Newcastle as even a formation change to the fabled four up front could not engender an improvement in finishing.
Roberto Firmino has not scored in 14 games. Diogo Jota is returning from a substantial injury. Sadio Mane has one Premier League goal since late January. Mo Salah has had 33 attempts and scored five of them since March began. Players react differently to such droughts: some stop shooting and others shoot too often. A lack of assistance from midfield is certainly starting to tell and at this stage Liverpool might just need one to go in off all of their arses at once.
How close will Daniel Levy come to just appointing Ryan Mason?
The shortlist is shrinking and Ryan Mason’s fabled win percentage is back up to 66%. As Daniel Levy scrambles around Europe to find someone who is precisely like Mauricio Pochettino without being Mauricio Pochettino, an obvious truth starts to formulate: interim might become permanent.
It surely won’t happen. Tottenham cannot replace Jose Mourinho with a 29-year-old for any longer than a few weeks at the end of a disappointing season. But if they end this campaign by overhauling the deficit to the Champions League places through Toby Alderweireld diags, focused pressing and actual attacking endeavour then Levy might be drawn into the romanticism instead of considering an ideal candidate.
Can Harry Kane cling on to history?
Those who fetishise the ‘Honours’ subheading on Wikipedia will scoff, but this might yet be one of the most understated seasons of sensational Premier League football from Kane. Andy Cole in 1993/94 is the only player to finish a campaign as outright leader for both goals and assists. Four games are left and Kane is one ahead of Salah for the latter with a healthy lead of two over both Bruno Fernandes and Kevin de Bruyne in the former.
He would swap it all for a taste of that sweet, sweet Carabao but the striker is fuelled only by individual achievement right now. Plan the open-top bus routes, produce the expensive merchandise and prepare the DVDs because Kane is about to possibly maybe perhaps equal a record that most people don’t know exists.
Is the Dele counter still open?
It was Championship-bound Sheffield United with Paul Heckingbottom as their manager but what a treat it was to see Dele Alli make his third Premier League start of the season. That attacking quartet he formed alongside Kane, Heung-min Son and Gareth Bale is not viable for every game but it is fun and an option worth exploring more often.
Alli has not started consecutive Premier League games in well over a year and Mason has little to lose in using a player that was marginalised under the previous regime. The 25-year-old will be motivated to make up for lost time – and Eric Dier is clearly incredibly happy so that’s quite nice.
What’s the point?
Will Gabriel Martinelli get to play some games?
Why are they still included in these features?