Michael Walker: Sweet uncertainty makes Premiership race compelling

Season’s end not yet upon us and already the next campaign is beguiling us

Tottenham will probably fall short in the English Premier League title race but that is not a reason to think the manager Mauricio Pochettino is not putting together a coming team for next season. Photograph: Lee smith/Reuters

Tottenham will probably fall short in the English Premier League title race but that is not a reason to think the manager Mauricio Pochettino is not putting together a coming team for next season. Photograph: Lee smith/Reuters

 

There are those of us who have felt the praise directed Tottenham Hotspur’s way this season, particularly of late, has been over the top. Tottenham are, after all, still three points shy of the total achieved under Andre Villas-Boas three years ago, when Spurs finished fifth with Gareth Bale in flow.

We quickly forget. Yet even from a dissenter, this does not seem the moment for Spurs enthusiasts to row back. Just because Tottenham failed to push a 1-0 lead over the line against West Brom on Monday night in the manner of, say, Leicester City, it does not mean their season has lost its meaning.

Spurs were the width of a post away from going 2-0 up and a couple of inches is not a reason to retreat from the thought that, under Mauricio Pochettino, this is a coming team.

Tottenham can still win the league with three games to go. There have not been many occasions over the past half century when that statement could be made. Of course there is despondency over a West Brom equalizer that sucked momentum from White Hart Lane, but if Leicester do not win at Manchester United on Sunday, then Spurs remain in contention.

Delle Alli will not be available for Monday night’s game at Chelsea following his suspension, but then Leicester did without Jamie Vardy last Sunday.

Again Spurs will be tested but then would-be champions are. Were they able to cope with Alli’s omission and win, that would take the drama on to next Saturday evening when Leicester host Everton.

Overall refreshment

Southampton

And if there has been one overall refreshment about this season it has been that sweet uncertainty. Compelling is an overused adjective in sports reporting but its use has been merited in this Premier League.

This has been the season of Chelsea’s collapse, a withering of the state worthy of Berlin Wall analogies, where José Mourinho is the local dictator brought down by mutinous subjects while the real power in the land, a Russian, watches on and contemplates the unappealing fallout.

Chelsea lost at home to Crystal Palace, Southampton and Bournemouth – before Christmas.

That was dramatic enough, but Old Trafford has staged comparable theatre. United began the season beating Tottenham 1-0, which could be Pochettino’s worst result given what followed. Wolfsburg, Bournemouth, Norwich, Stoke: four consecutive United defeats in December.

There has been something resembling an awakening recently and an FA Cup final awaits, but so much of United’s season has been mulch, compelling mulch though.

Then there’s Arsenal, Arsène Wenger and those disgraceful crowd figures. In a week when institutionalised lying has been exposed for what it is, it would be good if Arsenal, and others, quietly did away with theirs.

This is an example of the ebb and flow of our relationship with this Premier League extravaganza and all its warts. When Juan Mata spoke this week of earning “obscene” wages, he spoke like a man at the bar. Mata’s remarks appeared at the same time a Chelsea teenager, Dominic Solanke, was said to be seeking €65,000 a week to sign a new contract.

Chelsea sent Solanke to Vitesse Arnhem on loan last summer, when the lad was 17. He’s said to be on €9,000 a week. At 17.

Apparently incoming Chelsea coach Antonio Conte is to review Solanke’s situation and those of the many other youngsters Chelsea stockpile.

This can make you sigh, but then that phrase “incoming Chelsea coach” is a reminder that there will be dugout change and novelty at Stamford Bridge next season, so too at Manchester City as Pep Guardiola arrives and possibly across town at Old Trafford.

Saturated by money

Liverpool

If the Premier League feels saturated by money, the cash has had some kind of levelling effect internally. This is before the “big” money moves into clubs courtesy of a new TV deal. Booming middle-class wealth means there will be more Xherdan Shaqiri at Stoke City deals.

West Ham had one of those transfers in Dimitri Payet and with their move to the Olympic Stadium, they have already recruited an 18-year-old from Valencia, Toni Martinez. West Ham are looking to the future and to next season.

You can understand why. An indication of how stimulating this has been is that it’s not over and already there is reason to be engaged by the next one.

For that thanks must go to Leicester City. And to Tottenham Hotspur.

SPECTRE OF LEPPINGS LANE NIGHTMARE WILL NOT GO AWAY

Since April 1989, entering Hillsborough to watch a match has never been a wholly comfortable experience. No matter the excitement on the pitch – and in the first two Premier League seasons Sheffield Wednesday finished seventh – the eye was always drawn to the Leppings Lane end of the ground. There was always that thought.

And that was when sitting in another stand. To actually go into the Leppings Lane end to watch is to question if the match should be going ahead. Imagine how Liverpool fans felt when they had to return for a league game just seven months after the tragedy. Liverpool lost.

Seen from the inside, Hillsborough is massive. Sitting on the Kop opposite, you feel miles away from Leppings Lane.

But standing outside the ground, which had no valid safety certificate in 1989, Leppings Lane looks and feels small, narrow, cramped. When you go in and up the stairs it feels the same. You instantly have an awareness of the tight geography of the place, inside and out.

Those in positions of responsibility in 1989, including chief superintendent of South Yorkshire police, David Duckenfield, were unaware.

Duckenfield has, at last, admitted he did not prepare for an FA Cup semi-final by visiting the ground to assess the layout. This scandalous neglect is hard to conceive, a basic lack of respect for his assignment and for others.

It proved deadly.

Today is another Saturday. There is another game at Hillsborough. Cardiff City visit needing to beat Wednesday to have a chance of reaching the playoffs.

You can be sure there will be a few on Merseyside willing Cardiff on.

Otherwise Sheffield Wednesday will be in the play-offs and three games away from returning Hillsborough to the Premier League. Then, for the first time since 1999, Hillsborough would be on Liverpool’s fixture list as well as Liverpool’s mind.

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