It’s the hope that kills you and after what has been an extremely difficult season for Tottenham, they were given a glimmer of hope on Friday evening with Newcastle victory at Leicester.
It pushed open the door to Champions League football for interim boss Ryan Mason and his side, who could have gone two points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and four behind third-placed with victory at Leeds.
However, Mason’s side spurned a golden opportunity to put pressure on the sides above them, turning in a rather lacklustre display at Elland Road.
They failed to match Leeds’ intensity and it proved crucial as Spurs lost a fifth away defeat in 2021, more than they suffered throughout the whole of 2020 (W6 D7 L4).
Now, Spurs’ Champions League hopes are hanging by a thread and they will almost certainly be looking over their shoulders with games against Wolves, Aston Villa and Leicester to come.
European football could go down as far as seventh, but with Everton, Arsenal, and now Leeds, fighting to finish as high as they can, Mason has a huge job to make sure Spurs’ season does not end with a whimper.
What has already been a poor season by Spurs’ standards, could end disastrously if they fail to secure any European football whatsoever and it could be the difference between keeping a certain Harry Kane.
First they ended the Quadruple dream. Then they delayed the title party. Will they shatter Manchester City’s Champions League hopes on May 29, too?
Chelsea will be going for a hat-trick of wins over City in Istanbul later this month but, as Thomas Tuchel rightly pointed out, we shouldn’t link Chelsea’s comeback win at the Etihad too strongly with the Champions League final.
After all, City made nine changes for Saturday’s match. Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t even in the squad. And on Chelsea’s side, Mason Mount, Thiago Silva, and Ben Chilwell are all likely to start the final.
But these back-to-back wins over City and, more importantly, Chelsea’s improvement since Tuchel took charge is certainly enough evidence for us to start to consider whether the west London side could well be City’s strongest challengers in the Premier League next season.
Liverpool, with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez fit, will be back in contention. Manchester United – especially if they invest again this summer – should step up a level, too. But it seems certain Chelsea will be in the title race picture as well.
Defences are the foundation to any Premier League challenge and Tuchel has remedied Chelsea’s vulnerability, with the Blues keeping 18 clean sheets in his 25 games. In midfield, there are a variety of options to use around N’Golo Kante, who is back to his best. A clinical striker will be on the shopping list this summer but Chelsea have an abundance of wide forwards to pick from.
And in Tuchel, they have a world class manager who knows how to win big titles and big matches.
The pieces are all coming together for Chelsea to be Premier League title contenders again for the first time since 2017.
Predicting whether they will come out on top in a one-off game with City later this month isn’t easy. But over the course of 38 games in 2021/22 there will be a growing confidence in the camp that they could get the better of Pep Guardiola’s side again.
Another day, another ‘Big Six’ side frustrated at Leeds.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side put in another exceptional display against one of the Premier League’s traditional top-six sides, and they are the first team to remain unbeaten at home in a Premier League season against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs since West Ham in 2015-16.
While the result is a huge blow to Spurs’ top-four hopes, it keeps Leeds’ slim chances of European football next season alive.
Victory saw Bielsa’s side move into the top half and up to ninth in the table. While it is still a big ask for them to qualify for Europe, it is not out of the question, especially with winnable games against Burnley, Southampton and West Brom left.
With a seventh-place finish in the Premier League looking likely to secure a place in next season’s Europa Conference League, Leeds still have plenty of work to do as they look to make up a four-point gap to Liverpool in seventh, having also played two more games than Jurgen Klopp’s side.
They will certainly need three wins and of course, other results to go their way, but stranger things have happened in what has been arguably the most unpredictable Premier League season in history.
While Leeds fans will be beyond delighted with their performances this season, securing a European tour against all the odds in the final few games would just cap a sensational season for the Premier League newcomers.
What a joy it is to watch Eberechi Eze in this sort of mood.
The rain was relentless at Bramall Lane and so was the man whose services cost Crystal Palace the initial fee of only £16m last summer.
A goal, an assist, three key passes, five successful dribbles to make Sheffield United heads spin and five fouls drawn to gain his side set-piece advantage; this was a man-of-the-match display bursting with artistic impression as well as technical prowess.
He had starred back in January against the Blades when the 2-0 scoreline was equally misleading, riding half-challenges and leaving helplessly outstretched legs in his wake before finding the finish.
Here he did the same, treating John Lundstram’s paltry efforts at the touchline with contempt before gliding through more home mannequins to beat Aaron Ramsdale via John Fleck.
Between his elegant runs, there were tidy touches and forward-thinking passes but always the smell of menace. Only Wilfried Zaha has been directly involved in more Palace goals than his nine this term.
“It is his first season coming up from the Championship and you expect people to need time to adjust and play at this level,” said Roy Hodgson and yet Eze, in a side that usually prizes structure over creative freedom, looks right at home.
“We know that’s the quality he possesses and we encourage it. He was bold with the ball today and drove forward at every opportunity.
“If you ask me if I’m happy with Eberechi Eze, I say absolutely.”
No wonder. How well that money seems spent; Eze is a real talent and much more looks likely to come.
Friday Night Football brought a result of huge significance at both ends of the Premier League table. Newcastle moved to within a point of guaranteed safety with three games remaining against an out-of-sorts Leicester.
Barely a month ago, the prospect of that being so seemed very remote. But Steve Bruce’s side have won as many points in their last five matches as they managed in their 15 games prior to a run that has coincided with the blossoming of Joe Willock on Tyneside.
How Arsenal could have done with the in-form youngster on Thursday night as their season was left in ruins by their Europa League exit. Since Willock moved to St James’ Park on loan in February, he has scored five Premier League goals for the Magpies – in that time, no player from his parent club has managed to score more goals than him in the competition.
The Gunners’ loss is certainly Newcastle’s gain, with Willock making it four goals in as many games to spark this impressive 4-2 victory at the King Power Stadium.
“Going away from London, from my boyhood club wasn’t easy for me, it was a big move for me to come here,” he told Sky Sports after another fearless display, typified by the way he took his goal. “To come and be welcomed by the lads so easily, and learn so much from the staff and manager, it’s a blessing. I’m glad I can contribute with my goals.”
At 21 years and 260 days, Willock became the youngest player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances for the club, and he is also the youngest player to score in four consecutive Premier League appearances since Marcus Rashford back in January 2019.
Steve Bruce was delighted with the midfielder, saying: “We’ve said before the game, he’s forced his way onto the pitch by what he’s done as a substitute. For an hour until he tired he was excellent. He’s a smashing young player, I think that’s his fifth goal for us, that’s a wonderful return since he joined in January.”
Ahead of a daunting climax to their season, Leicester must embrace the challenge in the same way Willock has welcomed his time away from the troubles at Arsenal.
Will it happen again? Is Leicester’s top-four hoodoo beckoning for a second season? A couple of weeks ago, you would have said no chance. Now, it’s not so certain.
The Foxes missed Jonny Evans like a lost limb but even without their defensive ‘brain’, as Brendan Rodgers put it, they were an absolute shambles in a humiliating defeat to Newcastle on Friday.
Caglar Soyuncu looked like he had put his boots on the wrong way round. Timothy Castagne played the role of a man being played out of position perfectly. Leicester’s back three was always going to be damaged without Evans, but they were worryingly rudderless as no one took over that leadership void.
“It’s still in our hands,” said Rodgers after the game. Leicester still have to travel to Manchester United and Chelsea either side of an FA Cup final next Saturday.
Fifth-placed West Ham could be two points off the Foxes by the end of this gameweek, and have a relatively straightforward run-in on paper against sides without the same rewards to play for.
Even being in the mix this late on in the season for a Champions League spot is impressive for Leicester over the course of a season.
But if they fall at the final hurdle for the second year in a row, this one will hurt a lot more than the first time around.
Paul Heckingbottom declared himself “angry” at Sheffield United’s first-half display in a miserable rout by Tottenham last week but his words drew little response against a Crystal Palace side who will have fewer more comfortable afternoons despite a scoreline that long belied their dominance.
It hardly helped that the long-beaten hosts were familiarly behind after just 66 seconds, Eberechi Eze – as he had at Selhurst Park in January – allowed to swagger through gaps and over casually draped legs.
But on a day when the gloom stretched across the city, Wednesday’s relegation on a dramatic final day in the Championship meaning a first double drop in a season – this was another limp, leaden display; a painful reminder of a striking slump and a warning about the road ahead.
Heckingbottom, recruited by Chris Wilder, is respected at the club. He has been viewed as a credible permanent successor behind the scenes, a figure, crucially, more likely amenable when it comes to budgets and remits.
But the Blades have lost six of his seven league games in charge, conceding 18 goals, scoring just two and seeming ever more sapped of spirit and identity as a dangerous state of limbo has rumbled on. Here, they failed to manage a shot on target.
“I have no concerns, regardless of what anyone says,” said Heckingbottom when asked about worries that the misery of this term could roll into the next. “Totally different league, totally different season.”
Only time will tell how quickly psychological wounds left open for so long will heal.
But plotting the path after Wilder requires a big character sure of his convictions, able to re-organise and re-energise. The club’s next appointment will likely set the tone for more than just next season.