As far as Championship Sundays in the Premier League go, on the final matchday of the season, the 2016-17 edition was anticlimactic. At the top and bottom ends of the standings, nothing changed at all, and even in the middle of the pack there were no real shifts of consequence.
That meant that Manchester City held onto its third place and reached the Champions League directly, Liverpool clung onto fourth and gained a playoff space, and Arsenal missed out for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s 21 years as manager. As such, the Gunners had to settle for the Europa League.
The table had mostly ossified weeks ago. All that remained to decide was who would claim the last two spots to the Champions League behind new champions Chelsea and guaranteed runners-up Tottenham Hotspur. City had been the favorite to finish third and finished the season in emphatic fashion with a 5-0 win at Watford. Liverpool held a one-point lead on Arsenal for fourth place and preserved it with an initially nervy 3-0 victory against Middlesbrough. Arsenal’s 10-man 3-1 win over Everton, therefore, was moot.
The wild card in these contests was the opposition. Watford, Middlesbrough and Everton had nothing to play for, so the question was which of them would put up a fight. Middlesbrough was already relegated, Everton was already assured of seventh place and a spot in the Europa League qualifiers and Watford was guaranteed to finish somewhere between 12th and 17th. So, actually, Watford was competing for a few million pounds in prize money, although the Hornets didn’t play like it.
Early on in the afternoon, as all matches kicked off simultaneously, it seemed like a surprise might be in the offing with Arsenal somehow sneaking yet another fourth place. The Gunners quickly took a two-goal lead, while Liverpool had trouble breaking through against ‘Boro.
In the eighth minute, Danny Welbeck blew a glorious Arsenal chance, but Hector Bellerin followed up and the Spanish Adam Driver scored.
Before a quarter of an hour had been played, Laurent Koscielny was sent off for a reckless tackle.
But even with 10 men, Arsenal built out its score against an uninterested Everton. Before the half hour, an Alexis Sanchez shot caromed through to Welbeck, with a little luck. The Toffees’ defense just froze, leaving Welbeck all alone with his back to goal. He laid off for Sanchez, who doubled the score.
Everton finally made a game of it in the second half, when Romelu Lukaku converted a penalty after a Rob Holding handball.
And the Toffees even had an equalizer disallowed, before Aaron Ramsey made it 3-1.
But it didn’t much matter.
Because in Liverpool, the Reds faced the lowest-scoring team in the league in Middlesbrough, which had produced just 27 goals in 37 games. So even though a goal wasn’t immediately forthcoming, it seemed a matter of time before Liverpool broke through the ‘Boro defense. That didn’t mean, however, that the relief wasn’t enormous at Anfield when Georginio Wijnaldum finally opened the score with a blast on the brink of half-time – especially because before that, Dejan Lovren had seemingly bundled over Patrick Bamford in his own box but the visitors were denied a penalty.
After halftime, Liverpool put the game away. Philippe Coutinho bounced a free kick past American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who is about to return to Major League Soccer with Atlanta United.
And Adam Lallana rolled in a third before the hour.
Meanwhile, City left no doubt that it would be clutching onto its third place.
In just the fifth minute, Vincent Kompany headed in a Kevin De Bruyne corner.
Sergio Aguero then scored with two clean finishes.
And before halftime, Fernandinho bagged a scrappy goal.
Gabriel Jesus got a fifth in the second half.
In spite of the impressive finish, Man City’s year was ultimately disappointing. Manager Pep Guardiola will likely help orchestrate a big makeover to the squad before his second season. Because after leading the league for the first 10 matchdays, his side faded and crashed out of the Champions League in the round of 16.
Liverpool spent two days in first place, but with most of its key contributors now hitting their primes, Jurgen Klopp’s team badly needs to gain consistency. The pieces are there for a title challenge – especially if Coutinho stays this summer, in spite of flirtations with Barcelona – but it’s hard to win the Premier League when you tie 10 of your games. And when you have a disastrous month, like in January, when Klopp’s job was reportedly on the line.
Arsenal, finally, has been regressing for years. That had never manifested itself in the table – with the Gunners even sneaking into second place last season – until now, finally missing the Champions League for the first time in a full season led by Wenger. With his contract up and the clamor for his departure louder than ever, nabbing a spot in the Champions League playoffs would have strengthened his argument for sticking around and accepting a new deal that is or isn’t on the table, depending on who you believe.
But it seems that if any team could do with a fresh wind sweeping through its team, it’s probably Arsenal. Because on a Championship Sunday when the status quo remained intact, Arsenal was nevertheless the loser.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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