Well that wasn’t how I thought last weekend was going to turn out at all! As I wrote on these very pages last week (https://football-nerd.org/2017/05/05/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-abject-arsenal-plumb-new-depths-while-feyenoord-could-make-the-dream-a-reality-this-weekend/), I thoroughly expected Tottenham to keep the pressure up on table-toppers Chelsea, but instead their single goal defeat at the London Stadium saw them virtually hand Antonio Conte’s side the title for the fifth time in the 14 years since Roman Abramovich pitched up in West London.
Much of the analysis in the aftermath of the defeat has centred on likening the way in which Spurs have fallen short again this season to their implosion in the closing stages of last season. In all fairness however this season feels different. Chelsea’s record-breaking 13-game winning run through the autumn and winter in response to defeat at the Emirates put them in such a strong position that Mauricio Pochettino’s men did well to spark any sort of life into the title race. Finding themselves 11 points behind Chelsea in February, despite their best efforts and a 9-game winning run of their own, they were simply unable to catch Antonio Conte’s team whose hot run of form had ensured that they had given themselves a sufficient safety net to survive a couple of slip-ups.
While it seems almost inevitable that Chelsea will win the title, if not at The Hawthorns this evening then at the Bridge next week; Spurs can reflect on a current points haul seven greater than for the whole of the last campaign and a highest league placing since 1963.
For all that Tottenham can reflect on a very positive season, with their imminent decamping to Wembley for their home games next season as well as a stadium build to be financed we can only guess at how big the challenge will be for Daniel Levy in keeping his coveted young manager in situ and the vibrant young squad together. The club’s strategy and resolve could really be tested if one of the Spanish giants come calling for Pochettino or some of the star players are offered unmatchable deals similar to that which saw their last superstar, Gareth Bale, leave a few years ago. Spurs have come so close to that all-too-elusive trophy in the last two seasons; will they be able to sustain the challenge for the next few seasons, given the new circumstances in which they will find themselves?
Meanwhile across North London, Arsenal have somehow kept the ambition of their manager, and no doubt their owner from a purely financial perspective, alive by remaining in with a mathematical chance of qualification for the Champions League gravy train. From a position where it looked like the only guarantee was Thursday night football at the start of last weekend, the Gunners now find themselves just 3 points behind fourth-placed Manchester City.
Despite witnessing it in person, quite how Arsenal managed to win the game against Man United is still a mystery to me? Long gone are the days when clashes between the two clubs were the very definition of title-deciders. Mourinho’s thinly veiled attempts to deflect pressure and criticism from him and his side, started with the proclamation earlier in the week that he would be fielding a ‘weakened side’; although quite how weak a side featuring players of a reported total value of more than a quarter of a billion pounds is to be debated!
The way the self-proclaimed Special One set up his team and their approach of sitting so deep, certainly suggested that in what was probably a must-win game for both sides, he was more than happy to settle for a point and to throw all his eggs into qualifying for the Champions League by winning the Europa League basket.
The first half was the usual insipid sideways passing that is all too familiar to regular attendees at the Emirates over recent seasons, with only a couple of good saves by the impressive De Gea to show for the home side’s dominance of possession. Although there were also inevitably some hairy moments at our end when defensive errors nearly allowed United and specifically Rooney in on a couple of occasions.
The opening goal came via a huge slice of luck when Xhaka let fly from outside the area, Herrera ducked, the deflection off the United defender’s back left De Gea with no chance. Unusually Arsenal capitalised on the momentum and Danny Welbeck sealed the win against his old club with a thumping header three minutes later.
Following that result up with a 2-0 win over Southampton on Wednesday evening, while his side still need either Liverpool and/or City to drop points as well as winning all their remaining matches to keep the manager’s proud record of qualification for the Champions League in tact; you could forgive Wenger the enjoyment of finally having got one over the man who dubbed him ‘a specialist in failure’ in a game that really mattered.
Across the North Sea, expectation was sky high in Rotterdam as Feyenoord made the short trip north over the river Maas to face lowly city rivals Excelsior, knowing a win would secure the Eredivisie title for De Club van het Volk (The club of the people) for the first time since the turn of the century.
With 40,000 fans watching on big screens back at the iconic De Kuip stadium, due to the severely limited capacity at Stadion Woudestein, and the main roads closed off in the city centre ready for what promised to be the mother of all parties; Gio Van Bronckhorst’s men simply wilted under the pressure of expectation.
After a timid first half which saw them barely threaten the Excelsior goal, they fell apart in the second half according to Mrs Football Nerd, who watched the remainder of the game while I was on my way to the Emirates. They eventually went down 3-0 thanks to goals from Nigel Hasselbaink (indeed nephew of Jimmy Floyd!), Elbers and Koolwijk.
Thankfully, despite the shock defeat all is not yet lost and Feyenoord now face a date with destiny this coming Sunday when they host mid-table Heracles. A win guarantees that they will get theirs hands on the championship shield for the fifteenth time in their history regardless of how bitter rivals Ajax fare at Willem II.
It promises to be an incredibly tense and nervy afternoon for Het Legion (as the club’s fans call ourselves) to endure, including those of us who will have created a little corner of Rotterdam in East London, having turned down the opportunity to be at Wembley watching another team from my youth, Tranmere Rovers, in the National League play-off final. We can only hope that by late afternoon my decision proves to have been the right one!