It’s done. Chelsea are Premier League champions and given that it happened on Friday, it seems like old news. But in Antonio Conte’s world, there’s no time to reflect. Instead, it’s onward to the next challenge (the FA Cup final), a new contract and then the summer transfer session, which will supposedly see some serious cash splashed.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reflecting briefly on what this group has achieved.
With two home games left — Monday vs. Watford and next Sunday against Sunderland — there’s every chance they’ll end up on 93 points, which would mark the highest total since another newcomer to the Premier League sat on that Stamford Bridge bench and developed his own unique relationship with the crowd: Jose Mourinho, back in 2004-05.
All this with a side that finished 10th last season, a manager who only took over once the Euros were over (in early July), a net transfer spend of around £20 million (thanks to some clever wheeling and dealing in January), a whole lot of bruised egos to rebuild and three starters who had long ago been written off as Premier League also-rans (Marcos Alonso, David Luiz and Victor Moses) but who proved integral to the campaign.
Oh, and a tactical shift — the switch to 3-4-2-1 following that defeat to Arsenal — which many tried to emulate but few managed to copy successfully.
Conte himself said it was a turning point. “We hit rock bottom [in that 0-3 defeat],” he said after Chelsea’s 1-0 win at West Brom on Saturday sealed the title. OK, that part is stating the obvious. It’s what he said next that is noteworthy.
“I saw zero of my ideas in that team,” he said. “What I wanted simply wasn’t getting across. So I had to change.” Six games into the season, he had to admit to himself that it was time to go into a wholly different direction and try to fix things.
“But when you make changes like that, you have to be fortunate too,” he added. “I was lucky that I had players who bought into it, a club who supported me and the time to implement those changes.”
He’s right, and humble, to say that. Chelsea’s season was boosted tremendously by the absence of European football. On a different team, with a different manager, it might have made less of a difference. Here, it was critical. As well as lessening the strain on his regulars and limiting the number of injuries, it gave him that precious commodity he so craved: time to work on the training pitch.
The players did the rest. Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa returned to their sparkling form of 2014-15. N’Golo Kante picked up where he left off last year. Cesc Fabregas accepted a more limited (but, down the stretch, equally important) role. Cesar Azpilicueta reinvented himself as a center-back. And the list goes on.
One more thing Chelsea’s victory did is once again knock on the head the old cliché whereby the Premier League is some kind of alien concept that requires years to master. Conte won it on his first attempt. So did Manuel Pellegrini. So did Carlo Ancelotti. And so did Mourinho, back in the day. If you’re a great manager with great players at a well-run club, you have a shot. The learning curve is nowhere near as steep as some suggest.
Roma show us what could have been
Juventus traveled to face Roma with a chance to seal their sixth consecutive Serie A title this weekend. A draw would have been sufficient; instead, after a taking an early lead, they were rebuffed, 3-1.
It was the sort of performance from the giallorossi that rather left you wondering how this season might have panned out if they hadn’t fluffed their lines in key games (the home match against Napoli in early March and the recent derby defeat to Lazio spring to mind). Had they even managed to get four points out of those two games, a return easily within their means, they’d be level on points with Juve but ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
It’s not about rewriting history and sure, Juve might have raised their game if they viewed Roma as a general title threat. It’s more of a reflection on how close Roma were this season despite all the chatter and distractions, from Walter Sabatini’s departure to Francesco Totti’s “retirement” to the interminable stadium saga.
Max Allegri was without Sami Khedira and started with Claudio Marchisio, Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini and Dani Alves on the bench. They clearly had an eye on the Coppa Italia final against Lazio on Wednesday. But then Roma had a gaping hole up front as well in the form of their top goal scorer, Edin Dzeko.
Juve need three points from their final two games to clinch the title. They host a resurgent Crotone (who have taken 17 of a possible 21 points in their last seven games in a desperate attempt at a “great escape” from relegation) next week and then travel to Bologna, who have nothing left to play for, on the final day of the season. In other words, it’s hard to see them not winning the title but that doesn’t mean Roma’s growth ought to go unnoticed either.
Monaco move closer to winning Ligue 1
Monaco have all but wrapped up Ligue 1 with Sunday’s resounding 4-0 win over Lille. They can make it official if they avoid defeat at home to Saint-Etienne on Wednesday. If not, they’ll have to wait until next weekend, when it will take a Paris Saint-Germain win, another Monaco defeat and a PlayStation style swing in goal difference (Monaco are ahead by 17) to cost them the title.
In other words, they’re just about there. Indeed, they’ve all but sealed the acquisition of another young piece for next season by nabbing Youri Tielemans, who only turned 20 last week. The Anderlecht midfielder is one of the latest products in the interminable conveyor belt of Belgian talent and is likely to slot in seamlessly if, as expected, Monaco cash in on either Fabinho or Tiemoue Bakayoko in the summer.
Meanwhile, PSG remain at sea despite their 5-0 drubbing of Saint-Etienne. Unai Emery is now meant to be staying but there are few who believe that verdict is set in stone. On top of that, a number of players — from Marco Verratti to Marquinhos to Angel Di Maria — have serious question marks over their future. Fact is, even if they win their second domestic cup of the season (they’re in the French Cup final against Angers), the end of the campaign can’t come soon enough.
More curious comments from Mourinho
Those of us who argue that Tottenham aren’t “bottlers” waited for Sunday’s visit of Manchester United with some trepidation. Then you saw the lineup Mourinho sent out there and suddenly you felt a whole lot more confidence. Tottenham ended up winning 2-1, but the whole affair was surreal and Jose Mourinho explained just why after the game.
“It was a positive performance with a team that is not a team but is a group of players that we put in place to play some matches where we have some pride … [but which] are matches we don’t want to play. We have only one match to play and that’s not in the Premier League.”
OK, so he’s being brutally honest, right? All his eggs are in the Europa League basket, correct? A rerun of last week?
All that may be true and it may explain why we, once again, saw the “B team” out there. But several things don’t quite add up. For example, if Daley Blind will presumably be one of his starting center-backs in the Europa League final, why start him in this game? Not only that, but why play him at full-back? Or, again, Ander Herrera is tired and overworked, so you want to rest him for Ajax. Great. But then why send him on with half an hour to go and United 2-0 down?
Most of all, why even talk about things in this way? Why come out and say you don’t want to be playing any more Premier League matches? Why describe your players, who presumably you work with every day in training, as “not a team”?
Win the Europa League and you can point to two major trophies (plus the Charity Shield, which he insists on counting) and a Champions League spot for next year and that’s enough to keep the critics at bay. That’s fine and that’s great. But why rub people’s faces in it?
Ronaldo keeps dazzling even in ‘decline’
One of the funny things about sporting greats is that just when you think you’ve figured them out and you reckon it’s time for a graceful decline, they go and confound you. Cristiano Ronaldo turned 32 in February and quite clearly he’s not the player he was a decade ago or even five years ago. The fleet-footed bag of tricks who could leave defenders for dead is gone.
If you need numbers, note the decline in successful dribbles per 90 minutes: from 2.24 in 2013-14 to 1.51 in 2014-15 to 1.39 last year to 0.84 this season. He’ll probably finish the season with his lowest goal-scoring numbers since his first season at the Santiago Bernabeu, when he notched 33 (he has 37 this year), but he’s coming up big when it matters, especially down the stretch.
He scored all five goals over the two legs against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals, nabbed a hat trick to sink Atletico Madrid in the semis, and against Sevilla, he was there to make it 2-0 and then, with a vicious left-footed thunderbolt (his “weaker” foot), he settled the nerves to make it 3-1. The game finished 4-1, which means Real Madrid can pull ahead of Barcelona if they get something from the game in hand against Celta on Wednesday.
Incidentally, those two goals saw him pull even with former Tottenham and Chelsea legend Jimmy Greaves as the all-time leading goal scorer across Europe’s big five leagues. Both are at 366, one ahead of Bayern icon Gerd Muller. Since you’re probably wondering — and you can’t seem to mention one without the other — Lionel Messi is coming up in his rear-view mirror: he’s fourth with 347.
One more point on Sevilla, and as a fervent Sampaolista it pains me to say so. This game should have been far closer than it was, especially when you factor in that it took the woodwork and several exceptional Keylor Navas saves to limit them to a single goal. But equally, some of the defending (and not just the chaos on the opening goal) was simply absurd. If Jorge Sampaoli is to one day get the bigger, better stage he deserves, he can’t let his teams defend like the absent-minded professor.
Lovable Kuyt leads Feyenoord to glory
Sometimes you get the sort of veterans who are impossible to dislike. Or, perhaps, who become more likeable with age. Whatever the case, most will only be happy for Dirk Kuyt and the fact that a few months away from his 37th birthday, he scored a hat trick in Feyenoord’s 3-1 win over Heracles that clinched their first league title in 18 years.
It’s hard to ignore the fairy-tale element. Kurt left Feyenoord in 2006 as a free-scoring prodigy, moved to Liverpool (where he scored substantially less but made himself useful in other ways), then on to Fenerbahce (where he helped deliver a league title) and then he returned home.
To me, Kuyt epitomized the footballer who made up for what he lacked in technique and athleticism with intelligence and work rate. This is a guy who didn’t make his national team debut until the age of 24, and even then, it only came after he twice scored 20 league goals in a season. (And yet he went on to win 104 caps, placing him sixth on the Oranje’s all-time list.)
Kuyt is a guy whose understanding of the game was such that over the course of his career, he ended up playing up front, out wide, in midfield and as a full-back at various times. All without batting an eyelid.
Unless you happen to be an Ajax fan — in which case, commiserations — you can only be happy with what transpired in the Eredivisie on Sunday.
Bayern show the ‘heart of champions’
If there was a lingering doubt that Bayern’s 2016-17 Bundesliga title might be one of those feats where the hipsters throw up a “yeah, but” and point to the performance of Leipzig, the Bavarians’ 5-4 away victory presumably knocked that notion on the head.
The win left Bayern 13 points clear of second-place Leipzig with one game to go. They won both encounters by an aggregate score of 8-4. (If you’re one of those people who swears by Expected Goals, the cumulative xG scoreline is 8.90 to 2.18.)
More important than the numbers was the comeback. Bayern were 3-1 and 4-2 down before scoring three times after the 85th minute. Think about it for a minute: This is a team of veterans who have clinched the title, have nothing to play for and might as well have been planning their summer holidays. But since they’ve missed out on both the Champions League and the German Cup, they made the second half of this game into their season-ending trophy.
The epitome of this were Phillip Lahm and Xabi Alonso, playing in their second-to-last professional games, plus Arjen Robben, who simply never stopped running, keeping his 33-year-old legs pounding the pitch right to the very end. Oh, and his outrageous run that saw him skin two opponents and slip the winner into the back of the net.
I get uncomfortable when folks bring up metaphysical stuff like hunger, desire and personality. But Bayern showed on Saturday that they’re not just about quality and talent. They have the heart of champions as well.
Third place in Germany goes down to the wire
Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund were held 1-1 at Augsburg, which, coupled with Hoffenheim’s resounding 5-3 away win at Werder Bremen, means the race for third place — and automatic qualification to the Champions League — is still in play.
Dortmund’s goal was scored by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his 29th in the Bundesliga (and 37th overall), meaning he’s a single goal behind Robert Lewandowski, who has 30 in the league and 43 across all competitions. That’s another race that will likely go down to the wire, with Bayern and Dortmund hosting Freiburg and Bremen (both of whom are among the leakiest sides around) in the final match of the season.
Barcelona win big again
It’s all Barcelona can do to keep up. The away trip to Las Palmas might have presented a challenge earlier in the season — travel, the Canarian fortress, Quique Setien’s front-foot hocus-pocus — but at this stage, it was a formality. (Numbers don’t lie: through January, Las Palmas were undefeated at home, taking 23 of 33 points. Now they’re — literally, in their case — “on the beach,” having lost four straight.)
Neymar scored a hat trick to pad his numbers while Luis Suarez rounded out the scoring, bringing his seasonal total to 36, 28 in La Liga. Incidentally, Suarez and Neymar have combined for 55 goals this year in all competitions, with two games to go. Last year, they had 90. Sometimes football is a simpler game than we think.
Would Wenger leave if Arsenal finish fourth?
Just to be clear, I have no idea whether Arsene Wenger plans to stick around as manager of Arsenal next year. In fact, I’ve been told that he has not decided yet and it will depend on how things pan out. (Others say his decision was made a while back, which only goes to show that very few really know.)
What folks who know him fairly well have told me, however — and, I think, is more than plausible — is that he is far more likely to leave on a high than on a low. In other words, had Arsenal’s season petered out with a sixth-place finish (which is exactly where they were after the derby defeat to Spurs) and humiliation in the FA Cup final, then he would have wanted to stick around to “fix it.” But if the season ends on a high, either with that “fourth place trophy” (sorry, couldn’t resist) or the FA Cup (or both), then he might be more open to calling it a day.
Saturday’s 4-1 hammering of Stoke made it three wins on the trot for Arsenal. They have two more home games against beatable opponents (Sunderland and Everton) and then that Wembley date against Chelsea. There’s every chance they’ll finish on a high and we’ll get to find out if that theory was accurate or not.
Inter fans make a genuine statement
Inter’s nosedive continued on Sunday with their fourth consecutive defeat, a 2-1 home setback against Sassuolo. They’ve taken two of a possible 24 points in their last eight games, and you have to go all the way back to the 1981-82 season to find the last time they went eight games without a win. Stefano Pioli is now gone, with Stefano Vecchi back for his second stint as caretaker, and the owners are entertaining fantasies of bringing Antonio Conte or Diego Simeone to the San Siro. (When they wake up, they’ll no doubt scramble and make a last-ditch hire on the eve of the season.)
A word about the Inter fans. The fact that they’ve recorded the highest average attendance in Serie A this season (47,172) is a testament to their endless patience with the cluster-mess that has unfolded at the San Siro over the past 12 months. On Sunday, many (especially the Ultras) showed they’d had enough. And they did it in the most visually striking way.
Beginning early in a game that kicked off at 12.30 p.m. local time, they began unfurling banners. “Mister Zhang, when the cat’s away, the mice will play” (a reference to the Chinese owner who they feel ought to show more oversight over his employees) was followed by “Thank you Pioli: at least you were an actor, unlike the players who are dilettantes and the club officials who are extras.”
And then it continued — “If you’re going to waste millions upon millions, why not play the youth team instead of these buffoons?” right down to: “You’ve got a problem when you can spend tons of cash and still look like s—.”
Finally, just before 1 o’clock, the final banner: “You don’t deserve our support. We’re saying good-bye and we’re going to lunch.” And with that, the Ultras removed their flags and insignias and walked out of the San Siro.
Visually and emotionally, it was a striking sight. Far more impactful than paying some dolt to fly an airplane with a banner over the ground.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.