Five best Premier League season stories before coronavirus suspension
Manchester City's appeal
The Premier League title has been all but locked up, and the races for second and third weren’t very exciting, either. FiveThirtyEight gave Manchester City a greater than 99 percent chance of finishing second, while Leicester City finished third in nearly 60 percent of Opta’s 10,000 simulations for the remainder of the season.
Man City’s looming two-year UEFA Champions League ban would have added much more intrigue, provided it was upheld. Five clubs were within six points of fifth-place Manchester United at the time of the season’s suspension, setting up a legitimately intriguing race with nine matches to go.
That all would’ve been thrown out if the ban was lifted following City’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Sure, Man United, Wolves and Sheffield United were within six points of fourth-place Chelsea. But the Blues’ grasp on what normally is the final Champions League place seemed fairly firm. City’s ban being upheld would’ve introduced some much-needed chaos into the Premier League’s stretch run.
Image courtesy: AP Photo/Dave Thompson
An unlikely European party-crasher
Manchester City’s Carabao Cup win officially opened the door for sixth place to qualify for the Europa League. An FA Cup triumph by them (if the ban wasn’t upheld), Leicester City, Chelsea or Manchester United (provided City's ban was upheld) would’ve given way to seventh qualifying.
Sheffield United sat seventh at the time of the Premier League season’s pause, less than a year after earning promotion to the Premier League. The Blades still were alive in the FA Cup, too, and would’ve thus had multiple chances at qualifying for European competition.
Wolves charted a similar path last campaign, but they spent much bigger than Sheffield United in the season preceding and following promotion. Liverpool’s march to their first-ever Premier League table is one thing, but Sheffield United reaching Europe for the first time in their century-plus history is something else entirely.
Image courtesy: PA via AP Photo/Anthony Devlin
Ole's at the wheel, but is he for real?
Manchester United were humming before the season’s suspension. Only longtime rivals Liverpool picked up more Premier League points (12) than United (11) since the start of February.
Yet United were, still, something of an enigma. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side impressively beat cross-town rivals Manchester City, yet they also scored about two more goals and allowed nearly five fewer than expected in their last five Premier League matches, according to Stats Bomb.
Solskjaer’s United has shown unsustainable promise before -- look no further than the Champions League win over Paris-St. Germain last season -- but former Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t a free agent then. United’s finish could’ve definitively silenced, or amplified, the calls for the Argentine in the Red Devils’ dugout.
Image courtesy: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Multiple relegation dogfights
The global coronavirus pandemic has shed a light on how stark the financial differences are at each level of English football, with the goal of remaining in the Premier League often serving as an unsustainable incentive. Reforms are no less necessary and vital than before, even with the Premier League pausing an exciting relegation race.
Last-place Norwich City, 19th-place Aston Villa and 18th-place Bournemouth all were within six points of safety by the time the season was halted. Two teams (West Ham and Watford) were clear on goal difference, Brighton were just two points ahead of a relegation spot and Southampton -- nominally five points clear -- had lost four of their last five matches.
This was setting up to be a race right until the very end, especially with all but Villa and Bournemouth set to play at least two of the other clubs in that range. Norwich City would’ve controlled much of their destiny, with back-to-back-to-back games against Brighton, Watford and West Ham.
Image courtesy: PA via AP Photo/Gareth Fuller
Who minds the gap in North London?
Tottenham and Arsenal appeared to be trending in opposite directions before the season was suspended. Spurs lost their last three Premier League matches, while the Gunners won theirs and moved to within a point of their North London rivals with a game in hand.
Injuries to attackers like Harry Kane and Son Heung-min did Tottenham no favors, nor did José Mourinho’s throwback tactical approach as Spurs were bounced from the FA Cup and Champions League in rapid succession. Arsenal, meanwhile, seemed to be finding their groove under new manager Mikel Arteta, despite Europa League elimination.
The race for bragging rights could’ve come down to the first-ever North London Derby at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on April 23, but Arsenal were on their way to ending Spurs’ reign in the rivalry. Tottenham’s three straight finishes above Arsenal entering this campaign is the club’s longest streak in the Premier League era, and its potential end would’ve added surplus intensity in largely lost seasons for the clubs in one of England’s best rivalries.
Image courtesy: AP Photo/Alastair Grant