Sunday, May 24, 2015

EPL Season Comes to a Close with Chelsea on Top; QPR bottom

A few weeks ago, it looked like the final day of the EPL season would have a lot on the line. Instead there were only two games with any real significance – Hull City vs. Manchester United and Newcastle vs. West Ham. Hull City could stave off elimination if and only if they beat Manchester United at home AND Newcastle lost to West Ham. There was the miniscule chance that United could vault above Arsenal, if the Gunners lost at home to West Brom and United won by eight goals (or more), while the Gunners had already blown their chance to snatch second with the late season fade. And it was also, of course, the last game for Steven Gerrard with Liverpool and, on the off chance that Aston Villa upset Arsenal in the FA Cup next weekend, a chance for Southampton to move above Tottenham and potentially replace the North Londoners with the last Europa League place (though some might argue they should thus lose on purpose, to avoid the Thursday night schedule that often leads teams to fall down the table).

Early on, Hull City looked likely to do their part, putting major pressure on the United goal (marshaled by Victor Valdez), but failing to open the scoring after having not one but two goals disallowed in the first 30 minutes, though in both cases correctly. Unfortunately, recent history did not support the Cinderella story Hull were dreaming of, as only Wigan (twice) and West Brom (14 years ago) have moved out of the bottom three on the final weekend in recent years. Across England, Arsenal, after three straight home games without a goal, exploded for four within the first 37 minutes against West Brom, with Walcott scoring a first half hat trick and Wilshere scoring a blistering volley from 20 yards out and adding an assist. It was an impressive conclusion to their league season, though West Brom appeared to already have their heads on the beaches of some exotic island, thanking Tony Pulis for another successful effort in keeping a side up.

Stoke City were also rampant in the first half of Steven Gerrard’s last game with Liverpool, putting the Reds in a stunning 5-0 deficit – potentially fueling the fire of Sterling’s push for a transfer. Sunderland jumped ahead of Chelsea four days after staving off elimination, but the Blues equalized in what will be Didier Drogba’s last game for Chelsea in his one-year second spell. In a nod to his pivotal role in the rise of Chelsea and their cabinet-full of silverware over the past decade, the players carried him off the field after an early substitution. Tottenham were one up on the road against Everton at the half, as were Burnley against Aston Villa. In a game most thought would have huge relegation implications, now safe Leicester City were 2-0 against already relegated QPR. And Man City’s strong late finish to the season continued with a 1-0 lead over Southampton at the Etihad.

It had to be a disappointing afternoon for Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers, watching their beloved Liverpool season fizzle out in rather fantastical fashion, while Mark Hughes sat smugly on the other bench knowing he had reestablished his dented credentials as a quality EPL manager. Some will be raising the volume on their critique of Rodgers, whose own credentials have taken a serious hit this year, though one could make the salient and compelling argument that it is Liverpool’s financial position that most contributed to them dropping three positions (and 50 goals scored) from last season’s heartbreaking title challenge falter. Gerrard looked dejected and can add the sour taste of a loss in his final game to “the slip,” the “38-second red” and the FA Cup semifinal loss to Aston Villa – all in the last 13 months of his stellar Liverpool career. Phil Neville wondered this week in The Daily Mail if the Reds were headed toward “small” club status, and on the rather uninspiring evidence of this contest, the answer might be a resounding yes.

Hull almost scored within four minutes of the second half restart, when Daley sent it over from eight yards out. Then, on 52 minutes, Newcastle’s Sissoko scored the most important goal of a goal-happy Sunday, giving Newcastle a 1-0 lead over West Ham – who might themselves already be thinking of the beach, particularly as some of them spent part of the past week there, after Big Sam gave them 5 days off. Leicester exploded for two more goals themselves, leading hapless QPR 4-0 before 60 minutes had passed, while West Brom pulled one back against the Gunners, as McCauley scored a header from a corner that should have been beaten out by Ospina (who will probably be following the transfer news for the Gunners this summer, with Cech rumours rampant at the moment). Meanwhile, Crystal Palace took a 1-0 lead over Swansea in the 57th minute, from a goal by Arsenal reject Marouane Chamakh, continuing their impressive second half record under ex-star Pardew. On 72 minutes, Hull almost scored again, though Valdez dove to his right to save well from Jelavic close in, after a fine cross.

At the same time, Steven Gerrard scored a goal in his final English game, though only to make it 5-1, a few minutes before Fellaini earned a straight red card on 77 minutes for a brutal tackle on Paul McShane. Chelsea pulled ahead in their final game of the season, as Lois Remy continued his impressive record of scoring in the limited time he has been on the pitch this year. Wilshere just missed out on a brace in the final ten minutes, hitting the post on a deflected shot inside the box, before Ramsey lost out on a goal himself the same way (though from a more acute angle) before missing a good chance to finish a lovely pass from Sanchez. West Ham started challenging the Newcastle goal with increased pressure as a mere 10 minutes remained in their season, before Jonas Guttierez ended any hope for Hull City by scoring a second on 85 minutes, his first goal in two years. In Northern England, Stoke added insult to injury, scoring a sixth in what was an abject performance from a Liverpool team that were the hottest in the league heading into their showdown with United back in March. Another player completing his Premier League career went out with a goal, as Frank Lampard scored the opener of what became a 2-0 City win over Southampton (with Aguero adding his league-leading 26th goal of the season in the 88th minute). Hull City were unable to claw out a goal in a valiant performance, though a win would have ultimately left them with the same fate after Newcastle completed their 2-0 victory.
At the end of the day, Arsenal beat West Brom 4-1, Chelsea finished off Sunderland 3-1 (with Petr Cech concluding his Chelsea career with a win and another league title celebration), Burnley completing their stay in the EPL with a consolation 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, Crystal Palace beat Swansea 1-0, Tottenham won 1-0 at a disappointed Everton, Leicester completed an impressive end to their season with a 5-1 victory over the QPR flops, Man City won 2-0 over the Saints, Stoke finished off Liverpool 6-1 and Hull City and United, of course, finished in the only draw of the day. Soon after Newcastle’s victory, Sam Allardyce’s fate was made official, as he will not be back at West Ham.

And so another Premier League season came to a close, with Chelsea as champions, and League Cup winners, Man City in second, Arsenal in third and United completing the top four. Liverpool are back in the Europa league, most likely alongside both Tottenham and Southampton (arguably the surprise of the season). QPR, Burley and Hull City are all going down to the Championship, while Sunderland, Newcastle, Leicester City and Aston Villa have at least one more year of the financial windfall that playing in the EPL offers. The only thing left to decide is the FA Cup next weekend, with Aston Villa and ex-Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood dreaming of a Gunner scalp, while Arsenal attempt to finish a second season running with silverware. Until next season, adieu, adieu, adieu, to Mou, and Hull and you …

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