The date is December 17, 2016. Chelsea are top of the table, nine points ahead of both Arsenal and Liverpool. The title race isn’t over, per se, but the Blues are running away with it. Fast forward to February 26, and little has changed. With 12 matches left to play the gap at the top between Chelsea and Tottenham is 10.
Although Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all have a game in hand, an eight-point gap is the closest that would be achieved if all clubs were level on games played. That distinction belongs to City, whose Manchester Derby—originally scheduled for Sunday—was postponed while United fought for the EFL Cup against Southampton.
From now until Chelsea’s next league match—Monday, March 6 away to West Ham—the rest of the table sets up as follows: relegation-threatened Leicester City host Liverpool before we move on to next weekend. Then United host Bournemouth, Liverpool host Arsenal, Tottenham host Everton and relegation-threatened Sunderland host City. Let’s say four of those top sides walk away with all three points. Of course when we assume that, it rarely plays out quite so simply. But say it does; truly believe that will be the case.
Then realize that it doesn’t matter. Not in terms of chasing a league title, anyway. Realize that even though we expected Chelsea to bounce back after a horrendous 2015-16, that perhaps we didn’t expect this. Realize that the only races going on are between teams two-through-six and those battling relegation. It was far too soon to declare the race over in December, but not much has changed. In fact, Chelsea have even picked up another point.
Maybe they don’t win out but neither does any other side, and as it stands I’d suggest the Blues would be the best bet to do so. The thing is, one of the sides “chasing” them almost have to win out. That’s where we are now.
Heartbreak For Saints As United Win EFL Cup
When ordinary league matches have a bit of controversy sprinkled in, it’s not fun. When controversy comes to the forefront of a cup final, it’s even worse.
Southampton would feel that sting just 10 minutes into the EFL Final when Manolo Gabbiadini’s tap-in was incorrectly ruled offside. Nathan Redmond was well off when the ball was played, but Redmond wasn’t even remotely involved in the play. Gabbiadini was, and happened to be entirely behind Chris Smalling when the ball was played.
But let’s pretend he didn’t raise the flag on Gabbiadini (he did). Maybe you’re going to come at me with indirect offside instead, right? Well I’m going to stop you right there, because neither David De Gea nor his back line had any clue Nathan Redmond was there. The Englishman is neither involved nor interfering. Case closed. Well, not so much.
So on it went with Saints looking sharper and United, meanwhile, a little out of sorts. A costly foul just inside 20 minutes would change all that, though. So would the powerful right foot of Zlatan Ibrahimović. But hey, that’s football. Then seven minutes shy of halftime, United put together a nifty team goal that would see Jesse Lingard double the tally—well against the run of play. But hey, that’s football.
But you cannot deny Gabbiadini forever, and just on the edge of halftime he would make his mark. A goal down coming out for the second 45, but everything to play for. Three minutes after the break, following relentless pressure, there Gabbiadini was again. Suddenly United’s two-goal lead had gone up in smoke. Little did we know that the next 40 minutes would be as pulse-pounding as the first 48 were. But that’s what you want out of a cup final. That’s what you need out of a cup final.
Southampton kept up the unrelenting pressure, but all they had to show for it was a few shots off the post. A header here, a well-taken strike there—yet only the woodwork. Then in the 85th minute, left back Ryan Bertrand made his run—a run that could have (and arguably should have) decided it all. A run that culminated in an almost perfectly-weighted ball across the face of goal, only for both James Ward-Prowse and Shane Long to narrowly miss it.
Finally, the crushing counter. A perfect ball and an unmarked Ibrahimović. How do you leave that man unmarked? Tired legs, no doubt. A bit of misfortune as well, something Southampton experienced plenty of Sunday. And an ever-reliable striker, who at 35 years old is still winning trophies and scoring goals for fun.
In the end, harsh… but as we’ve learned, that’s football.