Plenty At Stake As Season Finale Looms The Big Picture

Plenty At Stake As Season Finale Looms

There is still plenty to play for as the football and rugby seasons draw to a close. But who will be smiling after the final whistle is blown?

It hasn’t been a vintage season in either football or rugby, but both have been fascinating nonetheless with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Chelsea were crowned Premier League champions last weekend following their victory over West Brom at The Hawthorns. There is no denying it is richly deserved and stands as a particular tribute to manager Antonio Conte who has won the league with basically the same side that imploded under Jose Mourinho last season.

Playing three at the back, Chelsea have looked very solid throughout the campaign. They have dominated the league almost since the start, with only Tottenham offering even a glimmer of a challenge for the title. Admittedly, they were untroubled by the fixture congestion that comes with playing in Europe, but their points total is hugely impressive – 90 with a game to go. It would be very hard for any team to compete with that in any year, regardless of European competition or not. They could make history if they beat Sunderland on Sunday by becoming the first side in Premier League history to win 30 league games in a season. Such has been their dominance.


It’s already been a great season for Blues fans even before they turn their attention to the FA Cup final meeting with Arsenal on Saturday week. The prospect of winning the double in his first season in charge must be a massive incentive for Conte and would be a fitting sign-off for veteran defender John Terry who leaves the club he joined as a teenager 22 years ago.

Gunners gloom

It’s a different story just a few short miles away in gloomy north London, but there is no shortage of incentive for under-fire Gunners boss Arsene Wenger and his squad either who would dearly love to salvage some silverware from what has been a bruising campaign. These are turbulent times at the Emirates as the team’s early season promise evaporated like morning mist long before Christmas. It was too much to stomach for a significant proportion of the Gunners faithful and the remainder of the campaign has been characterised by ‘Wenger out!’ placards and general unrest.


It could easily be argued that Wenger passed his ‘sell-by’ date a few seasons back, but it really looked like the writing was on the wall this time as his team were humiliated in Europe and face the real prospect of missing out on Champion League football under the Frenchman for the first time ever. However, the board have deemed that it isn’t enough to cost him his job and he will remain at the helm for another season at least. In his defence, it is worth remembering that he has a better record than most of his peers in the top six, even those who continue to be lauded for their efforts despite the absence of silverware in their trophy cabinets. But Gunners fans expect more. The reality is that unless the team suddenly become serious title challengers, the protests will continue until Wenger is gone. A sad end to a glorious career!

Also rans

But Arsenal aren’t the only top tier side who have flattered to deceive once again this season. Much was expected of Manchester City following the arrival of Pep Guardiola, but, despite a blistering start to the campaign, they haven’t really figured in the title chase and the manner of their exit from the Champions League at the hands of Monaco was indicative of how slipshod they have been all too regularly. Okay, it can be argued that this isn’t Guardiola’s squad and undoubtedly we will see a plethora of exits this summer as he rebuilds, but far more will be expected of him next term. The Spaniard was seen as something of a saviour when he arrived, he now has to prove it. It looks like the greatest challenge of his management career. City should secure Champions League qualification this weekend – they would need to lose badly at Watford and see other results go against them with a sizeable shift in goal difference to miss out, but stranger things have happened.


Manchester United have missed out on the top four for the second season in succession and have once again failed to qualify for the Champions League via the domestic route. Indeed, they have just one top four finish to their credit since Sir Alex Ferguson signed off with a league title at the end of the 2012-13 campaign. However, they may still qualify for the Champions League if they can beat Dutch side Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm on Wednesday.

If they manage to achieve that most people would call it a more than satisfactory outcome for Jose Mourinho in his first season in charge. Two trophies, including the League Cup, is certainly not a bad return, although I have heard the Community Shield mentioned as a third (much as Liverpool fans refer to their ‘five-trophy’ season back in 2001 which included the Charity Shield and the European Super Cup). The bottom line is that Mourinho has spent £200m and United are still a very hard watch. But it appears that they, at least, are moving in the right direction which is far more than can be said for many of their rivals.


Liverpool are looking good for the Champions League following their 4-0 thrashing of abysmal West Ham at the City of London Stadium last weekend. The arrival of Jurgen Klopp early last season has seen a gradual upturn in their fortunes, although they are far from title contenders at this stage. If finishing in the top four is the limit of their ambitions, then it has been a successful season for them. Despite any pronouncements to the contrary, I suspect that this isn’t the case and they will expect far more next season.

Whatever happens over the coming week, only Chelsea can be truly satisfied with their season. Everyone else will have regrets of some sort. Tottenham also have a lot to be proud of and, providing that their move to Wembley goes well, both themselves and Chelsea should be there or thereabouts next season. For the others though – Liverpool, City, United and Arsenal – there is plenty of work to be done between now and the beginning of next season regardless of how the table looks come Sunday evening.


Rugby

Saracens re-affirmed their status as Europe’s premier side as they retained the Champions Cup with a deserved 28-17 victory over Clermont last weekend. They now turn their attention to matters domestic as they travel south to face Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park in the Aviva Premiership play-off semi-final (BT Sport 1, Sat, May 20th 13.45). Wasps host Leicester in the other semi-final at the Ricoh Arena (BT Sport 1, Sat, May 20th 16.45).

The Guinness PRO12 semi-finals are also set for this weekend, with Leinster hosting Scarlets at the RDS on Friday night before Munster welcome Ospreys to Thomond Park the following day. Both Irish provinces have enjoyed excellent campaigns thus far, playing some exciting rugby along the way. Both reached the semi-finals of the Champions Cup which augurs well for their prospects for next season in both competitions.


While most people in this part of the world will be hoping for an all-Irish final, respective coaches Leo Cullen and Rassie Erasmus know that they can’t afford to ignore the attacking threat that both Welsh sides possess in abundance. Leinster easily beat Scarlets at the RDS a couple of months back, but the visitors were without a number of key players that day and are currently enjoying a rich vein of form, so Friday’s encounter is likely to be a much tighter affair. Rhys Patchell, who missed the crushing 45-9 defeat at the beginning of March, is fit and available and he will be joined by the likes of Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Scott Williams, Andy Parks and Johnny McNicholl to form a potent back line. Despite this, however, anything less than a victory will be seen as a huge disappointment at the end of a campaign that many long-term Leinster watchers view as a major return to form following some lean times over the last few years.

This season has been nothing short of cathartic for Munster players and supporters alike following the sudden passing of former head coach Anthony Foley in October, but they have responded superbly to become a better, tighter unit both on and off the field. They will be keen to finish the season on a high with some silverware, but must first get past Ospreys who welcome back Alun Wyn-Jones following a prolonged spell on the sidelines through injury. The Welsh captain’s return will provide a major boost to the visitors who have lost six of the seven games they have played without him but, even with the mercurial Rhys Webb among their number, Munster have more than enough in their arsenal to seal a spot in the final on Saturday week.

Images: Getty/INPHO

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