Top four race dies with a whimper

This week, eight years ago, Didier Drogba stubbornly fought Frank Lampard to gain custody of the ball on the penalty spot. Outranked, Drogba lost the battle but still went in to net a hat-trick in the 8-0 bludgeoning of Wigan Athletic to ensure Chelsea won the 2009-2010 English Premier League title.

The gluttony had the pleasant side effect of setting a new record for most goals in a season.

With a smart run and an almost scuffed finish, Manchester City’s Danilo equalled that record this week. A few minutes and an intelligent Bernardo Silva half-volley later and it was broken. The accolade achieved on Wednesday night will likely be lost amid the rapacious heap of Man City glory but, at the same time, would have been bitterly felt in a game down south.

What the current iteration of the Blues would have given to have bickering, but hungry, leaders on that same day. After a surprising spurt of form, Chelsea had chiselled out an opening into the Champions League. It may have been unlikely, but get the job done in the last two games and who knows, football might just do its thing.

Football was given no such opportunity. Antonio Conte set out a first-half team that could only bang its head against the sentient wall that was Huddersfield. The relegation-threatened stragglers had 11 players in front of the ball at most times, but their cause was made no harder by a blunt Alvaro Morata-led attack. The Spaniard was suffocated every time the ball came within touching distance — not that his touch is something he was particularly adept at in either case. Pedro and Willian, meanwhile, failed to inject any oxygen from the flanks, doggedly going narrow whenever on the ball.

No teeth accompanied the loudening bark in the second half. Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard were the response to going behind but couldn’t add anything to Marcos Alonso’s inadvertent equaliser.

It was a surreal result for Huddersfield, whose safety was locked down with the draw. Staying up is a ridiculous achievement for David Wagner and company, who were pencilled into last place by most before the first whistle of the season.

No top four off-the-seat action for the last day, then. City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool are England’s all-but-confirmed Champions League contenders. The only way that order can be challenged is if Jürgen Klopp and his Reds conspire to lose at home to Brighton.

Should that result come to pass, there is the possibility that all-out hilarity could ensue.

Steven Gerrard’s lifting of Europe’s prime trophy in 2005 could reverberate into the present and bless his boyhood club. Uefa decided after that event to sacrifice the worst-placed team from the winner’s league should the club not be in a qualifying position themselves. This is a decree Spurs felt the brunt of in 2012, courtesy of Chelsea, no less.

Now, should the Blues sneak into fourth, Liverpool could then reclaim their place by beating Real Madrid in the final — knocking the London club to the Europa League. Football truly can be a funny game.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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