EPL FINAL MATCH DAY: THE PROLOGUE, THE ELEVENTH HOUR DRAMA AND A PEEP INTO THE NEXT SEASON

By Moshood Akinleye

2016/2017 Premier League season is at its climax. Clubs are now going back to their master board where the journey started 10 months ago.

The most prestigious league in Europe started aback a stormy season having had an underdog team in Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester clinch the English title in grand style, a feat the club had never reached since its inception. The Foxes had finished the 2014/2015 season as a survival, steering away from Championship football. After the impressive and well deserved glory in the Premier League, the song on every lips was; WILL LEICESTER SUSTAIN THEIR CHAMPION STATUS THE FOLLOWING SEASON?
Well, they didn’t. Just like Mou’s experience in the 2015/2016 season, the Italian lost the hold at the King Power locker room. Kante crossed to the Stamford Bridge Blues in search of a “bluer” pasture and he found exactly what he was combing for. Kante won the PFA and FWA EPL Player of the Year Award for the 2016/2017 season. His former colleague, Riyad Mahrez had claimed those honours in the previous season when they both eased to an emotional EPL glory. Ngolo Kante doubled his own honour as he lifts yet another Premier League title but this time with the Stamford Bridge Blues.
Prior to the above, the 2015/2016 season saw former Champions Chelsea relegated to the 10th position just a season after winning the duo of the English title and the Capital One cup. The Blues were led to glory in 2014/2015 season by Jose Mourinho and the Portuguese was also the Manager in their gory 2015/2016 season. Roman Abrahamovich was forced to change the management at the Stamford Bridge, and the arrival of Antonio Conte, coming in full coaching capacity to replace Guus Hiddink who replaced Jose half way to the finish line of the 2015/2016 season, was soon a decisive masterstroke, as the Italian turned the team around with his energetic and tactical approach to the game. Conte has now joined the train of successful Italian Managers in the EPL and a league of few Managers who won the title in their first spell in a top flight club in England.

Klopp’s Rise and Fall
At Liverpool, it was about bringing back the old glory days after Brendan Rodgers couldn’t sustain the gel in the team that almost won the EPL title in the 2013/2014 season featuring SAS- Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Many Kop fans wouldn’t forget in haste Steven Gerard’s popular slip against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea that initiated the fall of the Reds in their title race contention. After the sale of the team’s headstone, Luis Suarez to Barcelona for a reported Seventy Five Million Pounds in the summer of 2014/2015 season, Liverpool went to the Champions League without any significant impact coming back home after the group matches. The 2015/2016 season was premature for Rodgers as the money realized from the sale of Suarez was overzealously spent on four Southampton players; Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Nathaniel Clyne. Raheem Sterling made a forceful exit to Manchester City and things soon began to fall apart for Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool’s season, instead of getting better was getting worse, and then the Ian Ayre led management had no choice than to fire Rodgers on the eve of a Merseyside derby against Everton. Jurgen Klopp had just ended the Sabbatical he journeyed into after announcing his resignation from the Sigma Iduna Park side. Klopp left Dortmund when the ovation was loudest. He got a warm and emotional farewell from the management, players and fans alike. Liverpool’s net caught the German Manager in October 2015, and then upon his first conference as a Liverpool Manager, Klopp dropped some memorable lines. Some of which are
“For us to succeed, it is important for the fans to change from doubters to believers”
“We want to urge the management to give us some time; we will try and make things happen”

“I AM THE NORMAL ONE”
Klopp did made things happen. Thomases were converted at Anfield, the German Manager had inherited a weakened Liverpool side, struggling to survive the group stages of the UEFA Europe League, wobbling in the trek to a Top 4 Finish in the EPL and practically having all new signings making zero impact. In his reign, the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana, Origi, Firmino and Dejan Lovren who were somewhat passive under the former Northern Irish Manager, became a player of their dreams. ‘Geggenpressing’ might have come with some constraints and limitations, the reds are already coping with Klopp’s highly demanding tactics. With it, Liverpool made it to the 2016 Europa League Final, passing through Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Villareal before falling in the hands of a highly experienced Sevilla side, who have now won the trophy three times on a stretch. With geggenpressing, the reds played the 2016 Capital One Cup final bowing to Manchester City through penalty shootout. Had the kop won in those two finals, Klopp would have made his first conference an understatement or a demonstration of rare humility.
Unfortunately, they lost. So Klopp started his first full Liverpool season on a high. The introduction of Senegalese forward, Sadio Mane, Gini Wjanldium, and the improvements on the dead woods he inherited from Rodgers paved way for an exciting performance. The Kop looked like a Champion stuff at the start of the season until his side began to fall in the hands of the league’s underdogs. The fact that Liverpool never lost to any of the top 6 in the league but lost to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull City, Leicester and Crystal Palace is a summary of a topsy-turvy season. Liverpool beat Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, City, and drew United in both legs.
It is not as worse as it looks but one obvious thing is Klopp hasn’t found a permanent solution to the goal sucking Reds inherited from Brendan Rodgers. Joel Matipp was a good addition though, but the inability to find a consistent partner with the Cameroonian in Dejan Lovren or Ragnar Klavan, has cost Liverpool a poor statistics on the goal column on the league table. Even though the attacking trio of Coutinho, Mane and Firmino with a partnership of Adam Lallana seemed to neutralize the goals conceded earlier in the season, the attack line soon went on holiday during Mane’s AFCON assignment and Coutinho’s injury earlier in January that saw the Brazilian sidelined for 6 weeks and had to spend another 8 weeks to get himself to full fitness. Milner’s left back position is another worry as the English man has struggled to fit in and he seemed to be frustrated playing that spot all season. The right peg is needed in that hole and Liverpool midfield has also suffered collapse in the absence of Captain Jordan Henderson, the deeper makeshifts are obviously makeshifts and not adequate replacements.
Obviously, the challenge is the absence of options on Jurgen Klopp’s bench. Something the German will be looking to fix this summer as he welcomes relegated Middlesbrough to Anfield in a MUST WIN game for UEFA Champions League Qualification. Arsene Wenger will probably be paying more attention to the game at Anfield than his side’s assignment against the Toffees on Sunday.

A New Experience at the Emirates?
Amidst a very challenging season, Arsene Wenger is yet facing another face off with the fans of the North London club. It’s a mixed fight though, many placards and banners may have been saying “WE WANT HIM OUT” few still display supportive messages. Arsenal for the first time in nineteen years might be finishing below the fourth position, taking them off the UEFA Champions League next season for the first time in almost two decades. Their fate is in the downfall of Liverpool against Middlesbrough and not in their own victory against Everton.
Fans of the gunners are in fact divided on their hopes for the removal or resignation of the French man as their Manager. The hopes are in between Fail to Make Top Four and Get Sacked or miraculously make top four and keep the European attendance honour and then Wenger probably keeps his job. However, there seem to be more Arsenal fans on the former than the latter divide.
EPL FINAL MATCH DAY Self Judgment
Generally, preview to the 2016/2017 season was an inflow of high profile Managers into the Premier League. Klopp was one of them, but most significantly was former Barcelona and Bayern Munchen Manager, Pep Guardiola to the blue half of Manchester.
His reign kicked off with a lot of drama and controversies. Yaya Toure’s brawl and then Joe Hart’s departure which many still criticize the Spaniard for as Caludio Bravo and his colleague, Willie Caballero seemed not to match the quality of Torino’s new shot stopper. Then, the arrival of notable additions, Le Roy Sane, Nolito, Gabriel Jesus, etc.

Amidst expectations of another league title or at least a very exciting season of City showing strong character as a title contender, the former English champions have struggled to make a Champions League spot in the league.
Pep has made a self judgment of his season saying he is worth sacking. The Spanish man was quoted to have said in an interview that he would have been sacked if he was in Barcelona or Bayern Munchen.
May be this was some sort of defense mechanism for saving his job, who knows?

Pochettino’s Second Best Spell
With all the high rise of Tottenham since the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino in 2014, Spurs have not been elevated beyond second place. Though they have participated in European elite competition- Champions League as well as Europa League, but there is nothing spectacular to show for it.
Spurs were the other team that was tipped for the title in the 2014/2015 season when Leicester surprisingly clinched the title. They did worse when a last minute slip saw them finish 3rd and below their bitter London rivals, Arsenal.
Here again is the same White Hart Lane side looking likely to challenge Chelsea for the title in the 2016/2017 season, yet cannot do better than a second place.
Of course, it is visible to the blind; Pochettino has added a lot of quality to the team both defensively and offensively. In his reign, Spurs have become one of the most defensive sides with the least goals conceded in the league. The rise of Harry Kane from the Spurs youth team to the senior cadre has not only made headlines but also churned out goals, and important ones at that. The addition of Chrisitian Eriksen and Heung Son Min have not been worthless at all, and so we can only say that Pochettino’s effort are still not enough to take his team beyond second place and become real title holders. We can only sit back and wait for what the Argentine’s plan for next season is. If any positives, he is a man with an eye for unpolished talent. The arrival of Dele Alli and his stupendous performance under the coach’s watch is a testimony to that.

Mourinho’s Dilemma?
Perhaps, one of the biggest surprises of the 2016/2017 campaign, Jose Mourinho took over from his former boss, Loius Van Gaal at the Theatre of Dreams in one of the most shocking moves of the season. Even though the rumours were on before the move, many believed Jose wouldn’t like to stay in the Premier League and face his former employers in Chelsea. But he did.
Jose had to pick the job from a rough edge, and he has managed to get a life line to Europe elite football.
Jose was rounded off in the Top four fight four games to the end of the season, and the Portuguese had to pick the easier choice of a potential Europa League final. Should Jose Mourinho’s men win the final at Stockholm against Ajax, United will join a possible four premier league clubs to play in next season’s UEFA Champions League.
But surely, Manchester demands more than this from the former Chelsea and Real Madrid Manager.

Newcastle’s return; Benitez’s Heart
After touring top clubs in Europe; Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea (in interim capacity) Napoli and Real Madrid, the least anyone could think or wish for Rafa was his unprecedented move to a struggling Newcastle side at the tail of the 2015/2016 season. The Tyne side was a potential relegation candidate when the Spanish Manager took over. And despite the turnaround initiated by Benitez at the dead of the season, it was too late to save Newcastle from Championship football.
It was rumoured that upon Benitez’s arrival, there was a clause in his contract warranting him to choose to stay or leave should the team fail to make Premier League football. But Newcastle failed and Rafa stayed. He joined the team in the water and mud, and behold in the 2016/2017 season are the winners of the Championship division title. Rafa has not just brought premier league football back to Newcastle in just a season, but also given Newcastle a title, something that has not happened in a very long while at St. James’ Park. The Tyne side, her management and players should owe their rejuvenation to one man who defied his own pedigree to believe in a sinking team and helped them rise again. His name? Rafael Benitez Maudes.

Who is in for the contest next season?
All these underway, with many Managers looking to tighten their belts for next season’s challenge, including Champions Manager, Antonio Conte, the experience of next season is better imagined. Chelsea will be hoping to defend the title; Jose is under pressure at Old Trafford to turn things around as soon as possible, Klopp will be looking to fulfil his own promise of delivering the Premier League at Anfield within four years…Yes he said it, in his first press conference as Liverpool Manager and then Pep will be in search for none other trophy than the Premier League. Not to forget the EPL title dream in the hands of Mauricio Pochettino. Too many fights for too little.

Now, over to you. Which three teams do you think will be real contenders of the EPL next season? Let’s have your opinion.

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