The Premier League’s “Project Restart” has proven to be a success, with the challenge of completing the 2019-20 season following the 100-day coronavirus-enforced shutdown now entering its final week.
Liverpool have already secured the league title, wrapping up their first domestic championship since 1990, and Norwich City have suffered relegation to the Championship after just one season back in the top flight. But there are still many issues yet to be resolved as the Premier League approaches its final round of fixtures on Sunday.
The battle for European qualification will go into the final day, and three clubs are locked in a fight to avoid occupying the two remaining relegation berths. The race for the Golden Boot and Golden Glove are still too close to call, while Friday will see the 2019-20 Footballer of the Year announced.
So how will it all shake down by the end of the season?
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CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUALIFICATION
Liverpool and Manchester City are already assured of their place in next season’s Champions League, but City’s success last week in overturning their two-year ban from European competition has left Chelsea, Leicester City and Manchester United in a three-way battle for the two remaining spots.
One point separates the three teams going into the final week, with fourth-placed Leicester ahead of United in fifth by virtue of goals scored. It could not be tighter. But by the time United visit Leicester on Sunday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team could be three points clear of them. If United beat West Ham at Old Trafford on Wednesday, every goal will count — a big win could be crucial in order to leave Leicester needing to win by more than one goal on Sunday to claim a top four finish.
But Leicester and United can still both finish in the top four because Chelsea have a tough final week, with a trip to Liverpool on Wednesday followed by a clash with Wolves at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
If Chelsea lose at Anfield and fail to beat Wolves, Leicester can pip them at the post.
EUROPA LEAGUE QUALIFICATION
Arsenal’s run to the FA Cup final has complicated the picture in the race for the Premier League’s three Europa League spots.
The first will go to one of Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester United, with one of those clubs guaranteed to finish fifth, so finishing in sixth is now crucial for the likes of Wolves and Tottenham. Sixth will guarantee a Europa League place, but the team that finishes seventh will have to wait until the cup final to discover whether it is enough for European qualification.
If Chelsea win at Wembley, seventh will be good enough for the Europa League, but if Arsenal lift the cup, they will claim the final spot.
Sheffield United and even Arsenal, in 10th, started the final week with hopes still alive of a top six finish. Yet the battle became much clearer after the midweek fixtures, as Sheffield United lost at home to Everton and Wolves beat Crystal Palace on Monday, with Arsenal losing at Aston Villa on Tuesday. It’s down to just two teams, Spurs and Wolves, battling for sixth on Sunday, with Wolves one point above Jose Mourinho’s side.
WHO GOES DOWN?
Norwich are already sunk but there’s still plenty left to play for after Tuesday’s games as three teams fight to avoid joining the Canaries in the Championship next season. Watford were thumped, 4-0, at home to Manchester City and Aston Villa defeated Arsenal 1-0 at Villa Park to set up a tantalizing final matchday.
After Watford’s defeat, second-bottom Bournemouth are all but sunk, though they have a slim road to safety. They need to win their final game at Everton and hope both Watford lose at Arsenal and Aston Villa lose at West Ham. A draw for either side means Bournemouth — who have a 6% chance of avoiding the drop — are sunk.
As for Watford and Villa, one of them will drop; whoever gets a worse result on Sunday will end up in the Championship.
Mark Ogden believes a move to Arsenal or Man United would have resulted in far more Prem goals and trophies for Jamie Vardy.
CAN JAMIE VARDY HOLD ON TO THE GOLDEN BOOT?
Leicester striker Jamie Vardy went into the final week on 23 Premier League goals — two clear of Southampton’s Danny Ings and three ahead of Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. With Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah on 19 goals ahead of the champions’ final two games against Chelsea and Newcastle, it looks like a four-way fight to the finish for the Golden Boot.
Vardy has just one game left in which to boost his tally — the clash against Manchester United — and any goal in that one could be enough to win the award and secure Champions League qualification for his club.
Ings may need a hat trick at home to Sheffield United on Sunday to give himself a genuine chance, especially with Salah, who is aiming for a third successive Golden Boot, having two games remaining in which to close the gap.
It might be too tall a task for Aubameyang, with just one game left to catch Vardy having failed to score at Villa Park on Tuesday.
WHO WINS THE GOLDEN GLOVE?
If Burnley’s Nick Pope can keep another clean sheet against Brighton at Turf Moor on Sunday, the England goalkeeper can’t be beaten in the race for the Golden Glove. Pope is on 15 shutouts for Sean Dyche’s team this season, but is one of three keepers who can end the season with the most clean sheets.
Manchester City No. 1 Ederson joined Pope on 15 after City’s 4-0 win at Watford, with a game against Norwich to come. Considering the Canaries’ form, it’s difficult to envisage Ederson even having a shot to save.
Liverpool’s Alisson Becker has 13 clean sheets so far this season and two games left, giving him the chance to move level with Pope in 15. (Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson was also on 13, but the 1-0 defeat to Everton means the best he can do is 14 for the season.) But on current form, it looks like boiling down to a race between Pope and Ederson, and it could end up as a tie.
Mark Ogden makes the case for Kevin De Bruyne beating Liverpool’s stars to Premier League Player of the Year.
CAN KEVIN DE BRUYNE BEAT LIVERPOOL RIVALS TO BECOME FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR?
With the Professional Footballers’ Association still to decide whether they will run a vote for the PFA Player of the Year this season, the Footballer of the Year — voted for by the Football Writers’ Association — could be the only recognised award handed out at the end of a campaign that has been elongated by the coronavirus crisis.
The winner will be announced on Friday, and there is no outstanding candidate to succeed Raheem Sterling.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Anfield teammate Sadio Mane are the most likely from Jurgen Klopp’s squad, with Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Trent Alexander-Arnold also in contention.
Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne is gathering support, however, after racking up 19 assists for Pep Guardiola’s team this season. De Bruyne may end up with just the Carabao Cup in terms of major trophies, but with so many Liverpool players splitting the Anfield vote, the Belgium international could yet be crowned Footballer of the Year this week.