Do or die for the Premier League’s stumbling giants

It’s that moment of the year again — squeaky bum time. Four years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, we still can’t escape the necessity of the legendary Scot’s famous phrase.

It’s that period in a league season when you squirm so much in your seat that nerves turn into screeches. In practice, it’s the time when a single slip, solitary mistake or momentary lapse in concentration will be paid for in blood, tears and silverware. To
paraphrase Al Pacino’s famed sermon, a mere inch can be the difference between living and dying.

For the runaway top two, the picture is clear enough. Leaders Chelsea need only to secure another three wins against inferior opposition to guarantee a fifth Premier League title. Although they are certainly odds-on favourites to see out this gauntlet, manager Antonio Conte is taking nothing for granted.

“We have to have great enthusiasm and great patience because we are having a great season, but [for it] to become a fantastic season we must win [the title],” Conte said this week.

“Now it’s important for us to prepare the right way for the next game. If we don’t win against Middlesbrough, then you lose this great win [away to Everton].”

Given that Conte captained a Juventus side that led the 1999-2000 Seria A by five points with three games to go, only to fall below Lazio, it’s no surprise the Italian refuses to adopt a nonchalant attitude to the league’s climax.

For Tottenham Hotspur, the situation is equally straightforward — if slightly bleaker. They need to keep winning and pray to a benevolent deity that the Blues drop some unlikely points.

Spurs have undeniably been the most consistent team over the past two years but their efforts will, in all likelihood, once again be for nought.

They can take solace, however, in the promise of next season — and the broader future. With a team brimming with young, hungry talent, it seems only a matter of time before this generation marks their steady rise with a trophy. Consecutive Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year winner and English hero Dele Alli almost has the potential to do this on his own.

The same applies to Chelsea. A few prudent additions to an already dangerous squad could see them fly high in Europe, let alone the domestic league.

But that’s where the optimism ends for the big teams of England. For the other traditional giants, the remaining games of the season and the transfer window that follows will be pivotal in laying the foundations for a successful campaign next time around. Fail to finish on a high, and they could risk being sentenced to mediocrity.

Liverpool, for instance, have dazzled and threatened to pop all season long. Fuelled by manager Jürgen Klopp’s exuberance, the Reds have played some of the most delicious football in the league this term. Sadio Mané has bordered on world-class and the supporting cast of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and company have given many a defence sleepless nights.

Whether it be through a lack of focus, determination or defensive solidity, Liverpool have been unable to translate their attacking sublimity into a sustained title challenge. A top four finish and the European football it brings are a must if the Reds are to regain the sense of grandeur that all their fans expect.

One set of fans not beholden to a sense of greatness anymore belong to the once invincible Arsenal. And who can blame them?

FA Cup final berth notwithstanding, Arsène Wenger has given them precious little to cheer about. Impotent displays have followed each other like dominoes, the latest being to rivals Spurs in which they demonstrated as much attacking impetus as a domesticated dassie.

If the club does plan on giving Wenger a mooted contract extension, it’s vital that he gets his ducks (and Özils) in a row, and fast. Somehow, some way, the manager needs to get everyone striving towards the goal once again. The Alexis Sanchez contract debacle aside, Wenger’s biggest task in the coming weeks will be once again to inspire trust in himself —from players and fans alike.

Misfiring giants don’t get any bigger in stature than those that hail from Manchester. Eternally at odds, the struggles of United and City are eerily similar. Managers José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola simply haven’t been able to make it click. Millions of pounds have been spent on bringing in the world’s best, but that’s of little use when their on-pitch understanding is akin to a snail attempting trigonometry.

For both clubs, Champions League football is a must. If they fail to achieve that now, trigger-happy club owners await. Mourinho and Guardiola need time to build their respective legacies — and the only currency that can buy that is victory.

For them and the other stumbling superpowers, victory must begin this weekend. Football purgatory awaits those who fail these tests. Amid all this uncertainty, one thing remains abundantly clear: we’re in for one helluva squeaky bum time. 

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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