Monday, June 10, 2024

England Rocked By Iceland

It was a most unfriendly friendly at Wembley Stadium on Friday when England’s tune-up for the upcoming Euros showed a squad seemingly not ready to face the giants of Europe in less than two weeks. A 1-0 loss to Iceland, ranked 72nd in the world, revived painful memories of England’s elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of the small nation. This was just a friendly, but highlighted there is much work to do before England can be taken seriously as a Euro 2024 contender.

The Three Lions were able to manage just one shot on target at Wembley. Supporters, of course, will question Southgate’s squad selections which saw former England stars such as Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish left off this current version representing God and country. The midfield combination of Kobbie Mainoo and Declan Rice did not mesh and the 19-year-old Mainoo was caught out of position on the Iceland goal. Mainoo could see his place taken by Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher. Gallagher went unused against Iceland after playing 90 minutes versus Bosnia & Herzegovina. Trent Alexander-Arnold could also be in play to move in beside Rice but that seems a risky move in front of a shaky back line. Alexander-Arnold offers intriguing offensive possibilities but has never been a strong defender.

Emerging Crystal Palace player Adam Wharton, relatively untested at the international level, presents another possible but unlikely option. The beleaguered England back line has even more concerns after John Stones suffered an ankle injury in the first half. A rusty Stones had already been partially complicit in Iceland’s goal before his injury. If Stones misses time, a back line already missing Harry Maguire is thrust into further chaos. The center back tandem of Ezri Konza and Marc Guehi did not inspire confidence with Guehi’s wobbly performance versus Iceland particularly worrisome as he had been counted on to take a large step forward in the upcoming competition.

Southgate’s decision to cut Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite could come back to haunt the manager. Branthwaite’s omission from the squad surprised many with pundit Jamie Carragher dramatically (perhaps ridiculously….) calling out Southgate for cutting a young center back who represents “England’s present and future.” Brighton center back Lewis Dunk, still recovering from an injury, is unlikely to be anyone’s idea of a savior.

Left back also remains a headache for Southgate. Luke Shaw is not yet ready to play and the use on the left of right footed right back Kieran Trippier appeared the patchwork solution that it was on Friday. Fortunately, there should be hope that the England attack will be better in the coming weeks. Jude Bellingham has yet to join the squad following Real Madrid’s Champions League final and he should hopefully bring some energy and cohesion going forward. His return will likely displace Phil Foden to the left of England’s attack after the Premier League’s Player of the Year struggled in the Number 10 role versus Iceland. Both Foden and striker Harry Kane were uncharacteristically poor on Friday and better things should be expected from both going forward. It must be admitted, however, that Foden has never shined for England in the manner that he has for his Premier League club.

A pleasant problem for Southgate to have is where Cole Palmer now fits in the squad. The Chelsea star was one of the few top performers for England in this latest match. Does Palmer start for England in place of Bukayo Saka? Newcastle’s Aaron Gordon’s seems destined for the bench despite some brief flashes before he was replaced by Saka in the 65th minute of Friday’s loss. Saka is still managing through a muscle injury suffered late in the Premier League season.

The many decisions for England’s manager must unfortunately be made without the benefit of more on pitch evidence and experimentation before the curtain rises on Euro 24. England begins play versus Serbia in just six days.

Friday, June 7, 2024

England’s Euro 24 Roster Includes Some Surprises

England’s Euro 24 roster is final, and a surprising Premier League squad has captured the most roster spots. The four players from Crystal Palace represent the largest contingent from any one Premier League side. Eberechi Eze, Adam Wharton, Marc Guehi and goalkeeper Dean Hendersen survived the final cuts made by England Manager Gareth Southgate on Thursday. Eze and Wharton’s inclusion in the side ensured there was no room for, among others, Tottenham Hotspur’s James Maddison. A disappointed Maddison admitted his league campaign never rebounded from a prolonged mid-season injury absence.
While Tottenham Hotspur flagged in the season’s second half, the Eagles of Crystal Palace soared under new manager Oliver Glasner. Eze was central to that success and a fairly easy choice to make the England team. Wharton’s presence on the squad is more surprising. He joined Crystal Palace in January from Championship side Blackburn and soon found himself a regular in Glasner’s lineup, starting the final 15 Premier League matches for the Eagles. Wharton, who has been lauded by England Manager Gareth Southgate for his playmaking abilities, made his first senior appearance for England just this week versus Bosnia & Herzegovina. Guehi, meanwhile, could play a pivotal role for Southgate in Germany.

The England defense is problematic. Long time starting center back Harry Maguire is ruled out with a lingering calf injury. John Stones is on Southgate’s squad but is coming off a troubled season where he was both injured and seemingly out of favor with Manchester City Manager Pep Guardiola. Maguire’s teammate at Manchester United, left back Luke Shaw, has not played since February. Chelsea’s perpetually injured defenders Reece James and Ben Chilwell did not even make the preliminary 33-man England squad let alone the final 26 chosen this week.

Guehi, although having only 10 caps for England, is a three-year starting regular in the Premier League and the favorite to step in for Maguire at the heart of Southgate’s defense. Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa, Brighton’s Lewis Dunk and Liverpool’s Joe Gomez are other, less attractive, center back options making the cut.

The axing of promising young Everton center back Jarrad Branthwaite from the final squad raised some eyebrows considering the thin England central defense. Perhaps Southgate is of the mind that Brathwaite’s contributions are exaggerated in Sean Dyche’s overly defensive Everton scheme.

Meanwhile, the strength of the England side should be in attack. A wealth of riches in forwards and attacking midfielders has seen England veterans Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish both excluded from the Euros squad after poor Premier League seasons. Surprisingly, Southgate is carrying two strikers behind captain Harry Kane. Ollie Watkins’ outstanding season at Villa saw him trail only Chelsea’s Cole Palmer in combined Premier League goals and assists. Toney’s selection is a bit more surprising with the Brentford player finding the net only four times in a Premier League season abbreviated by a gambling suspension. Palmer’s explosive debut season for Chelsea was a surprise. His inclusion on the England squad is clearly far from it. Palmer’s Chelsea teammate Conor Gallagher will also be going to Germany, bolstering a midfield with questions. Long time mainstays Jordan Hendersen and Kalvin Philips are gone.

Wharton and Manchester United’s 19-year-old midfielder Kobbie Mainoo, both playing in their first major international tournament, are in. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, a defender and hybrid sort, is a candidate to start in the midfield alongside Arsenal’s Declan Rice. Alexander-Arnold’s Liverpool teammates Curtis Jones and Jarrell Quansah along with Burnley goalkeeper James Trafford  joined Maddison, Grealish, Maguire and Branthwaite as the unlucky seven cut from the England roster this week. England begins Euro 24 play against Serba on Sunday June 16th.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Premier League Manager Updates

The Premier League slate of managers for next season is nearing completion after Chelsea formally announced Enzo Maresca as their new head man. Maresca piloted Leicester to the Championship title this past season and thus Leicester enters the market alongside Brighton as the only remaining clubs with open manager positions.

Of course, Manchester United’s Eric ten Hag remains in a form of limbo which seems crueler by the day. Still in place but seemingly unwanted, ten Hag awaits the determination of his fate by Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his INEOS group, the new sheriffs in town at Manchester United.

The Maresca appointment was no shocker as rumors had heavily circulated for more than a week, but it remains a bit of a head scratcher. Winning the Championship cannot be dismissed but Maresca had a strong roster to work with in Leicester’s first year post relegation from the Premier League and, despite a plethora of talent, the Foxes almost choked it away in the end. A 14-point lead in the table shrank to just a point as the Foxes just got by Ipswich to take the top spot. Declining performance in the second half of the Foxes’ season also saw increased complaints from supporters about Maresca’s possession based, often perceived by Fox fans as boring, style of play. Maresca has but one and a half seasons of senior management, having failed to last a season at Parma before his Leicester stint. He does have the Pep Guardiola stamp of approval, however, after spending time as an assistant at Manchester City where he worked with young players such as current Chelsea men Cole Palmer and Romeo Lavia. Mikel Arteta, it should be remembered, was also a Pep assistant and had less head man experience than Maresca before succeeding at Arsenal. Importantly, Maresca is reportedly fully on board with Chelsea’s management structure which limits input by the coach upon matters such as transfer policy and roster construction, a key sticking point with former manager Mauricio Pochettino. Chelsea is all in on its new manager, paying a substantial fee to Leicester to enlist his services and giving the 44-year-old a five-year contract. Maresca officially takes command on July 1.

Liverpool’s new manager took the reins this week as Arne Slot officially takes over from Jurgen Klopp in Merseyside. Slot is also a huge admirer of possession football and building from the back in the manner of Pep Guardiola sides. The Dutchman, however, is also fond of attacking with widely spaced wingers, a tactic which was more a part of Manchester City’s game in the earlier years of the Guardiola era. How Slot may integrate his approach with a Liverpool roster accustomed to more direct play under Klopp will be interesting to observe. Slot led Feyenoord to the Eredivisie title two years ago and Liverpool will certainly be hoping for a smoother transition to the Premier League than that experienced by other Dutch title winners such as ten Hag or former ill-fated Crystal Palace Manager Frank De Boer, both of whom won the Eredivisie and then found the Premier League just a bit more challenging.

Well under the radar in comparison to the Maresca and Slot signings was West Ham’s announced hire of Julen Lopetegui. The Spanish manager, who replaces David Moyes on the touchline at London Stadium, could actually have the best resume of the three new hires. Lopetegui won the Europa League and delivered three consecutive top four La Liga finishes as manager of Sevilla. His accomplishments also include a two-year unbeaten run as manager of Spain’s national team. On the downside, Lopetegui suffered an awkward departure from the Spanish national team, failed at Real Madrid, and walked away from Wolverhampton after less than a year in place last summer. Importantly, though, Lopetegui ensured Wolverhampton’s Premier League survival in the 2022/23 season. He took over a club that was at the bottom of the table in November 2022 and guided it to a 13th place finish. Differences with ownership then ended his time in the Black Country. Having already proved his effectiveness as a Premier League manager, Lopetegui returns to the league as one of several Basque managers who have experienced success in England. Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, Aston Villa’s Unai Emery and Bournemouth’s Andoni Iraola also hail from the Basque region in northern Spain. Xabi Alonso, yet another Basque manager, won the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen this past season. Like Maresca, Lopetegui will start July 1.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Premier League Connections In Saturday’s Champions League Final

The storylines of interest to Premier League fans are fewer this year for the Champions League final. For only the second time in the last seven years, there is no Premier League team contending for Europe’s most prestigious club trophy. The Premier League won the trophy in three of the last six years but English hopes for this year’s tournament were dashed when defending champion Manchester City fell to this year’s finalist Real Madrid. The Spanish giants have won the tournament five of the last ten years and few Premier League supporters will be excited to see the Spaniards add to their record 14 trophies as European champions.

Interest in England would have been greater if Bayern Munich had not collapsed in their semifinal contest with Los Blancos. A late comeback from the Spanish club means former Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel will not be seeking a second Champions League this week. Tottenham Hotspur legend and current Bundesliga scoring leader Harry Kane will not be seeking his first silverware at Wembley on Saturday. It instead falls to Borussia Dortmund to spoil the Real Madrid party. The German side returns to the final for the first time since 2013, when a gentleman by the name of Jurgen Klopp was their manager. Their unimpressive fifth place finish in the Bundesliga this season makes them an unlikely and unexpected finalist. The Black and Yellow came back from a first leg goal deficit to beat Atletico Madrid 4-2 in Germany to advance from the quarterfinals. The Germans then posted two clean sheets and identical 1-0 victories over PSG to earn their ticket to Wembley. The Dortmund lineup will have a few names familiar to Premier League fans. Winger Jadon Sancho is on loan from Manchester United where his squabbles with Manager Eric ten Hag were well documented. Left back Ian Maatsen is a Chelsea loanee. Maatsen, however, is one of several young talents Chelsea is unhappily expected to sell this offseason to balance its finances under profit and sustainability rules. Borussia Dortmund captain Emre Can made 115 appearances for Liverpool between 2014-2018. Can’s midfield partner Marcel Sabitzer had a cup of coffee with Manchester United while on loan for 10 appearances last season. Stars are few in a Dortmund squad which is playing with house money as it faces the 14-time champions.

Real Madrid required penalties to dethrone Manchester City in the quarterfinals and then staged some of its patented late match dramatics by scoring in the 88th minute and 91st minute of its second leg semifinal with Bayern Munch to advance by an aggregate 4-3 margin to the final. Both goals in that second leg were scored by Joselu, a Spanish striker who made 46 appearances for Newcastle across 2017-2019. Andriy Lunin was in goal against both Manchester City and Bayern Munich but could be on the bench for the final. Ludin performed capably this season filling in for the injured Thibault Courtois, but Real Madrid’s first choice keeper is now fit and made four appearances late this season as he worked to be ready for yet another cup final. Courtois, an FA Cup winner with Chelsea, was between the sticks for Real Madrid’s 2022 Champions League victory. Defending in front of goal will be Real Madrid defender Antonio Rudiger who won a Champions League title with Chelsea in 2021. 

And then, of course, there is legendary Real Madrid Manager Carlo Ancelotti who has won a record four Champions League titles as a manager and two more as a player. Memorably for Premier League fans, Ancelotti was also on the losing end of a Champions League final when his AC Milan side fell to an epic Liverpool comeback in Istanbul in 2005. The legendary manager spent time in Merseyside himself during a short, surreal and largely unsuccessful run at Everton during the COVID pandemic. A decade earlier, Ancelotti won the Premier League with Chelsea. Of course, Chelsea sacked him a year later. Some things never change...


Monday, May 27, 2024

European Spots And Promotions Decided As Red Devils Prevail And Saints Ascend

Newcastle and Leeds were the big losers this weekend, except perhaps for one of the winning managers. Manchester United upset rival Manchester City to win the FA Cup and secure a Europa League spot for next season. Chelsea defaults to competing in the Europa Conference League. Manchester United’s 2-1 victory at Wembley knocks Newcastle out of Europe altogether.

Manchester City lost the chance to post a domestic double for a second consecutive year but still has the Premier League title in hand, its fourth in succession. The league champions seemed to be little troubled by Saturday’s loss as they celebrated the league accomplishment with a Sunday parade. In truth, the Citizens did not put up much of a fight in the cup final the day before. Haaland, Foden and company were largely silenced by a United defense that was bolstered by the returns from injury of center backs Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez.

Meanwhile, it was young Red Devils Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, both 19 years old, who found the net and provided what will perhaps be a parting gift for Manager Eric ten Hag. The potential of its young stars provides hope for a Manchester United future which may not include the embattled manager as reports widely circulated before the cup final that the Dutch manager would be sacked regardless of the outcome. An injury riddled season saw the Red Devils tumble to eighth in the table, the club’s worst ever Premier League finish. The discouraging league result which included embarrassing home losses to clubs further down the table, combined with a bottom finish in a less than imposing Champions’ League group might well outweigh Sunday’s trophy. Ten Hag would potentially depart on a defiant high note, however, declaring after Saturday’s victory that if he were no longer wanted, he would go win trophies elsewhere. The FA Cup trophy, captured in a second consecutive FA Cup final, takes its place next to the Carabao Cup silverware ten Hag won last year.

With Sunday’s win, ten Hag joins Thomas Tuchel as the only manager to defeat Pep Guardiola in an English domestic cup final. There would be a certain irony if ten Hag were to be replaced, as some rumors have it, by Mauricio Pochettino who has never won English silverware. Guardiola, meanwhile, will have been frustrated by Manchester City’s inability to execute on Saturday. Despite controlling the ball for 74% of the match, the Citizens were unable to break though until Jeremy Doku’s 87th minute goal made things a bit interesting in the end. Numerous Manchester City stars were off their game as the celebrated fourth league title might well have detracted from the focus on Saturday at Wembley.

Surely Newcastle supporters will have been more distraught than those in blue on Saturday. Manchester United’s win locked up a Europa League place which otherwise would have been Chelsea’s. The domino effect sees Newcastle staying home next season while Chelsea competes in the Europa Conference League.

Of course, there never seems total certainty about anything in the current turbulence of world football. Manchester United’s new minority owner, INEOS, must reach some form of resolution with UEFA to overcome multi-club ownership rules prohibiting clubs with common ownership from competing in the same tournament. INEOS are sole owners of Ligue 1 Nice, which has also qualified for the Europa League. INEOS has indicated confidence that a situation whereby Manchester United might be relegated to the Europa Conference League will be avoided.

Clarity on who is playing in the Premier League next season was provided on Sunday when Southampton won the Championship final to earn promotion to the English top tier. The Saints 1-0 victory over Leeds returns Southampton to the Premier League after a one-year absence.

Another familiar face in Leicester had earlier ascended to recaptured Premier League status by virtue of winning the regular season Championship title. Ipswich, the second place second tier finisher, will return to the Premier League for the first time in 22 years. Adam Armstrong scored the winner for Southampton on Sunday in a tense match which belied the frenzied nature of a typical Southampton match. Matches involving the high pressing Saints under Manager Russell Martin produced more goals than those involving any other club in the top three tiers of English football this season. Such a style may be dangerous and the results not so heavenly should the Saints replicate it in the Premier League next season. Leeds, meanwhile, lost for the sixth time in a promotion playoff match. The Whites now face tough financial decisions on key players amid declining parachute payments from the Premier League in what will be a second season post relegation.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Oh, Chelsea….

Chelsea has issues with prosperity.

In an April glimpse of more positive results to come, Chelsea decisively blasted Everton 6-0 only for the game to become more memorable for the sight of its young stars selfishly squabbling with each other over who would take a penalty kick. Worse yet, the dominating performance versus Everton was immediately followed by a humiliating 5-0 loss to rival Arsenal. Chelsea would not lose again after the Emirates misstep, however, winning six and drawing one to propel the club itself into position for a Europa League berth should Manchester City defeat Manchester United in the FA Cup this weekend.

The Chelsea project was showing short term results and promise for the future. Something was off, however, as Manager Mauricio Pochettino doubled down on his sad and sensitive refrain which had been part of this rollercoaster season. Unlike the animated narcissism of one-time manager Jose Mourinho, Pochettino’s manufactured drama had an ick factor which could make one cringe. Pochettino spoke of being unloved by Chelsea supporters and described feelings of loneliness and unhappiness in his position. He chose a quick getaway down the tunnel after Sunday’s season ending match, demurring from the traditional post-match acknowledgment of Chelsea supporters. Pochettino had made it clear in recent comments that it might be he, and not Chelsea’s ownership, who might trigger a divorce.

Just as Pochettino never really settled, the owners never seemed convinced Pochettino was the man to take the club forward despite the exhaustive search undertaken prior to his hire. Uncertainty was evident in the offering of only a two-year contract. Even that short-term agreement will not be fulfilled. The parties agreed to mutually part ways on Monday.

Chelsea will now hire its sixth manager in the two years since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital purchased the club. Who the latest victim will be is anyone’s guess in a market where big clubs such as Bayern Munich are struggling to find agreeable candidates. Supposedly the German giant is poised to hire Vincent Kompany who just led Burnley to Premier League relegation. Manchester United purportedly has also been on the prowl for a suitable name to replace the still intact Manager Eric ten Hag. Pochettino, in fact, might be such a candidate for the Red Devils.

Chelsea has been linked with Roberto De Zerbi, the former Brighton manager who recently had his own mutual parting with ownership. De Zerbi’s struggle with respected owner Tony Bloom and the mediocre Seagulls season just concluded probably rule him out for the Blues. Former Chelsea managers Mourinho and Thomas Tuchel are available but would represent awkward appointments. Brentford’s Thomas Frank has been mentioned but seems too levelheaded to jump into the unsettled Chelsea madness. Younger managers such as Ipswich’s Kieran McKenna and Leicester’s Enzo Maresca are in the picture. Experience would be lacking with these latter two candidates, but a younger manager might be more willing to accept Chelsea’s management philosophy which now dictates limited manager input on roster decisions. Part owners Boehly and Behdad Eghbali and sporting directors Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley currently provide the confused direction on such decisions in Chelsea’s currently convoluted organization structure.

Almost despite itself, Chelsea under Pochettino’s coaching leadership finished the season strongly. A Europa berth had seemed an impossibility just a few months ago. Expensive player acquisitions seemed to be a waste of money. The team’s performances were chaotic and unproductive. That changed for the better in the season’s final weeks. Unhappiness and discord behind the scenes did not.

Pochettino now goes in search of a place he can call home after never quite feeling comfortable in his short recent stints at both Chelsea and Paris St. Germain. Chelsea, meanwhile, continues to search for the right man to lead its unorthodox project. 

FA Cup Final

The FA Cup competition concludes with a Manchester derby on Saturday at Wembley Stadium. Manchester City seeks a domestic double after winning the Premier League last weekend. Manchester United is perhaps playing for Manager Eric ten Hag’s job. Manchester City just became the first club to win four consecutive Premier League titles. Manchester United just completed its worst Premier league finish in history, tumbling to eighth in the table. The Red Devils could, however, secure European play for next season with a win on Saturday.

The road to this final has not been easy for ten Hag and company as they required extra time to defeat Liverpool in the quarterfinals and then prevailed in penalties versus Coventry City after squandering a three-goal lead in the semifinals. Manchester City, meanwhile, has outscored its FA Cup opponents by an aggregate 15-2 margin, conceding the two goals in a 6-2 laugher over Luton Town. An upset win over cross town rival and league champion Manchester City might be ten Hag’s best hope of continuing his current employment if it is not already too late for the Dutch manager. Saturday’s match is a rerun of last season’s Cup final when Manchester City triumphed 2-1, one of six Citizen victories in the last seven times these two clubs have met. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Premier League: It’s A Wrap - Manchester City Wins Record Fourth Title

Manchester City completed its inexorable march to a fourth consecutive Premier League title with a 3-1 win on the season’s final day over West Ham. The accomplishment marks a first in English football, no other club having won four successive titles since the inception of the English football league in 1888. Phil Foden, the Premier League’s Player of The Year, scored in the second minute of the contest at the Etihad and would add a second on the way to Sunday’s win. The Citizens finished unbeaten in the league at their home venue this season. Rodri, the scorer of Manchester City’s third goal, is unbeaten in the last 74 matches he has appeared in. Manager Pep Guardiola won his 12th league title in 15 seasons as a topflight manager and has now led Manchester City to six Premier League titles in the last seven seasons.

Arsenal battled the Citizens to the end, casting out the demons of last season’s collapse. A 2-1 win over Everton on Sunday was the 16th win in the Gunners’ final 18 matches. A comeback over the Toffees on Sunday was perhaps fittingly capped by Kai Havertz’s 89th minute winner. The former Chelsea man was widely criticized in the early stages of his Arsenal career. Manager Mikel Arteta kept the faith and Havertz played a key role in Arsenal’s outstanding performance in the new calendar year. The Gunners finished just one point shy of the total accumulated by the 2003/04 “Invincibles” Arsenal side and their 89 points would have won the Premier League last season. It was not enough to take down the defending champions as the Gunners fell two points short in the end.

There is a cloud, however, over a champion accused of 115 unadjudicated violations as it raises yet another trophy. The lack of action regarding the accusations against City, while other clubs such as Everton and Nottingham Forest have been assessed point deductions for lesser missteps, does not speak well of the Premier League and taints the accomplishments of its champion.

Only one other manager besides Guardiola has won the Premier League in the last seven seasons. Jurgen Klopp won Liverpool’s first Premier League title in 30 years with the Red’s victory in 2020. Sunday, he said goodbye to the fans at Anfield following Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Wolverhampton. Klopp also won a Champions League title and five other trophies during his time in Merseyside. Liverpool was already in a fixed third place position entering Sunday’s match and thus the day at Anfield was all about the departing legend. On Monday, the club confirmed Feyenoord Manager Arne Slot as Klopp’s successor.

The league’s fourth place finisher and Champions League qualifier Aston Villa was routed at home on Sunday by rampaging Crystal Palace. The Eagles 5-0 win was the sixth victory in a season ending seven match unbeaten run for the south London squad. Young Crystal Palace stars Jean Philippe Mateta and Eberechi Eze posted a hat trick and a brace, respectively, as the Eagles soared into the top half of the table. The Eagles’ tenth place Premier League finish was the highest ever for a Crystal Palace side which seems an altogether different team under new manager Oliver Glasner. Aston Villa, meanwhile, was able to coast across the season’s finish line with fourth place secure due to the late season failures of closest challenger Tottenham Hotspur.

Having meekly capitulated to Manchester City earlier in the week, Spurs entered Sunday having lost five of their six previous matches. The shaky business end of the season for Spurs at least ended on a bit of a high note as the North London side made easy work of Sheffield United, the Premier League’s worst team. Two goals by Dejan Kulusevski helped put the Blades to the sword in a 3-0 Tottenham Hotspur win. Sheffield United departs the league having accumulated the third lowest point total in league history and having conceded 104 goals, a new Premier League record.

Sheffield United, Burnley, and Luton Town all wasted everyone’s time this season as, for only the second time in Premier League history, all three promoted sides will be immediately going right back down. Burnley and Luton Town were losers on Sunday to Nottingham Forest and Fulham, respectively. Luton Town was the best of the relegation rabble this season, capturing an abominable 26 points from their 38 matches. As with the Champions League qualifiers, the relegation victims were clear entering the weekend.

What will not be entirely clear until next weekend is which clubs will be playing in the Europa League and Europa Conference League next season. Tottenham Hotspur, as the league’s fifth-place finisher, is assured of one of the two Europa League berths. Chelsea is guaranteed European football after its fifth consecutive win, a 2-1 victory over Bournemouth which featured a half field moonshot goal by midfielder Moises Caicedo. It was Caicedo’s first goal for the Blues whose late season surge will see them play in the Europa League if Manchester City wins the FA Cup. A Manchester United win in the cup gives the Red Devils that ticket and Chelsea will need to be content with a Europa Conference League berth. Newcastle nosed out Manchester United for seventh place in the table after both clubs won on Sunday. The Magpies blasted Brentford 4-2. The Red Devils won 2-0 over a disinterested Brighton club which saw Manager Roberto De Zerbi announce his departure from the club just days before the Seagulls final match. Newcastle now holds the Europe Conference League ticket pending it being taken away if Manchester United defeats Manchester City in the FA Cup final on Saturday. A Manchester United win would mean the Red Devils play in the Europa League, Chelsea participates in the lesser Europa Conference League competition and Newcastle is left to focus on its domestic schedule.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Premier League: The Final Week

The results of midweek matches lend additional clarity to the remaining Premier League races. Tottenham Hotspur did their rivals Arsenal no favors by capitulating to Manchester City 2-0 on Tuesday. With Golden Boot leader Erling Haaland scoring both goals, Manchester City leapfrogged to the top of the table over the Gunners by winning at a strangely friendly Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. A good number of Spurs supporters in attendance cheered the failure of their own club, prioritizing the damage done to rival Arsenal over Spurs’ own fortunes. Manager Ange Postecoglou got into some verbal sparring with one such Tottenham Hotspur “supporter” during the match and highlighted the sad culture which is Spurs in remarks after the contest. Perhaps of little concern to its fans, Tottenham Hotspur was mathematically eliminated from Champions League contention with the defeat, the club’s fifth loss in six matches.

Manchester City, accused of 115 financial violations in building its super team, is now on the precipice of a monotonous fourth straight title should the Citizens defeat West Ham on Sunday.

Arsenal, now trailing the title holders by two points, must win its own match over visiting Everton and hope for a Manchester City loss or draw. Arsenal has a slender one net goal advantage should a goal differential tiebreaker come into play if Arsenal wins, and Manchester City draws.

Aston Villa, meanwhile, were winners on Tuesday without even stepping onto the pitch. The Tottenham Hotspur loss means Aston Villa has clinched a Champions League berth for the first time in more than 40 years. One can only hope that Manager Unai Emery receives Manager of the Year consideration. The case can certainly be made that the jobs done by Emery and Everton Manager Sean Dyche in accomplishing their club’s objectives while doing “more with less“ should merit debate versus just handing another trophy to Manchester City Manager Pep Guardiola.

While the Premier League League title will be decided on Sunday, some of the European places could remain unsettled until the FA Cup winner is determined next week. The Champions League spots, of course, now belong to Manchester City

Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa. Despite its series of poor late season performances, Tottenham Hotspur remains guaranteed of a Europa Conference League berth at minimum. A point at relegated Sheffield United on Sunday would elevate the north London side to a more prestigious Europa League berth regardless of results elsewhere.

The second Europa league berth is complicated. If Manchester United were to deliver an unlikely win in the FA Cup final versus Manchester City, the Red Devils will be ticketed for the Europa League. A Manchester City win makes that second berth contingent on table position. Entering the weekend, Manchester United is eighth in the table and the hypothetical loser in the three-team chase for two remaining European spots (One Europa League and one Europa Conference League). The Red Devils created a final weekend opportunity to overtake one of those other clubs, however, with their 3-2 win over Newcastle at Old Trafford on Wednesday, a result which leaves the two clubs level on points. Unfortunately for Manchester United, the Red Devils’ negative goal differential puts it at a tiebreaker disadvantage versus the other two contenders for the final European places. Chelsea is three points above Manchester United but has a staggering 16 net goal advantage which makes Chelsea uncatchable for the Red Devils. Manchester United thus only qualifies for Europe by virtue of table position if the club betters the result of Newcastle on Sunday. Both clubs are on the road, Manchester United visiting Brighton while Newcastle is at Brentford.

Success is not assured for either of these stumbling clubs fighting to compete in Europe. In the last three matches for each club, Manchester United has dropped six points and Newcastle has dropped four. The beneficiary of those stumbles has been Chelsea. The Blues have peaked at just the right time and won four consecutive matches, the latest being Wednesday’s 2-1 win at Brighton. Aside from a resounding April walloping by Arsenal at the Emirates, Chelsea is otherwise unbeaten in its last 14 matches. Wunderkind Cole Palmer scored his 22nd goal of the season in the win over the Seagulls. A draw with Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge clinches sixth place for Chelsea, meaning Europa Conference League is assured and the more desired Europa League is theirs should Manchester City win the FA Cup.

Manchester United cannot pass Chelsea in the table but Newcastle can. A Magpie win at Brentford accompanied by a Chelsea loss to Bournemouth would see Newcastle finish sixth absent an unlikely shift from the Magpies’ current eight net goal advantage over Chelsea for tiebreaker purposes. Seventh place brings Europa Conference League as consolation…unless Manchester United wins the FA Cup in which case seventh place is a meaningless finish for its occupant.

The relegation battle at the bottom of the table by contrast is much more straightforward. Luton Town can only claw to safety if it defeats Fulham at Kenilworth Park, Nottingham Forest loses at Burnley AND the Hatters somehow overcome a current 12 goal deficit in tiebreaking goal differential. Impacting no race but historically important is Liverpool’s match with Wolverhampton when Jurgen Klopp makes his final appearance at Anfield as Liverpool manager. Even the remaining Premier League match this weekend between Crystal Palace and already Champions League bound Aston Villa holds some meaning. A sixth win in seven by the Eagles could see streaking Crystal Palace move into the top half of the table should Brighton and Bournemouth both lose on the final day.  

Monday, May 13, 2024

Premier League Results Match Week 37: Arsenal and Manchester City Win; Liverpool Eliminated; Bye, Bye Burnley; Luton Doomed; Chelsea Closes On Newcastle and Europa League Berth

Arsenal pushed the title race to its final weekend with a 1-0 victory over Manchester United on Sunday after Manchester City did its part by defeating Fulham 4-0 the day before. Manchester City can nose ahead with a victory Tuesday at Tottenham Hotspur. If Manchester City wins on Tuesday and then again on Sunday versus West Ham, it will mean a fourth consecutive Premier League championship for the Citizens and Manager Pep Guardiola. An upset by Spurs, however, will give Arsenal the upper hand and the ability to clinch a first title for Manager Mikel Arteta when they host Everton this coming Sunday.

Liverpool, meanwhile, was eliminated from title contention by Arsenal’s victory. Insult was then added to injury for the Reds when Aston Villa’s Jhon Duran scored two late goals, in the 85th and 88th minutes, to secure a 3-3 draw with Liverpool at Villa Park on Monday.

Arsenal’s win at Manchester United on Sunday came when Leandro Trossard scored his 14th goal of the season for the Gunners, assisted by Kai Havertz and lazy Manchester United defending. Once again, it was Casemiro with the blunder for Manchester United as his laggard approach to moving up field kept Arsenal’s Havertz on side when the ball changed possession and the former Chelsea man found Gunner teammate Trossard in an easy position for the Belgian midfielder to strike the 20th minute winner. Casemiro, the former Real Madrid midfielder has been employed as an emergency center back for Manchester United and has created additional emergencies with his play at the unaccustomed position. The one goal was enough for Arsenal to keep its title hopes alive as goalkeeper David Raya notched his Premier League leading 16th clean sheet. Manchester United, playing a second match without Bruno Fernandes, seldom challenged Raya who needed to make only two relatively straightforward saves. Arsenal claimed a club record 27th Premier League win in retaining its hopes for a championship. Manchester United, meanwhile, has won only one of its past eight league matches as a European place is slipping away from the Red Devils. Manchester United is three points behind both sixth place Newcastle and seventh place Chelsea as the Red Devils prepare to hist the Magpies on Wednesday. in the scramble for the remaining European places in the table. The Red Devils also have a lifeline for a Europa League berth should they upset Manchester City in the FA Cup final.

Newcastle was forced to share the points at home versus Brighton on Saturday in a slog of a match which saw neither side score in the second half of a 1-1 standoff.

Chelsea took advantage of Newcastle’s dropped points with a late comeback to beat Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. Raheem Sterling scored in the 80th minute and Nicolas Jackson scored the winner for Chelsea just two minutes later for a 3-2 win which stunned the Tricky Trees and continued Chelsea’s late season surge. Only the top three clubs in the league have captured as many points since January 1st as Chelsea. Jackson’s goal on Saturday was his 14th league goal of the season as the Senegalese striker has quieted the talk of Chelsea desperately needing another answer on top. Saturday’s winner was Jackson’s fifth goal in Chelsea’s last five matches.

Despite losing on Saturday, Nottingham Forest seems all but assured of surviving its relegation scare. Luton Town lost 3-1 to West Ham on Saturday, leaving the Hatters three points behind the Trees with one match left for both sides. The Tricky Trees, however, also have a goal differential advantage of 12 so next weekend appears a mere formality before the league says sayonara to Luton Town.

Burnley was mathematically relegated with its 2-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. Micky van de Ven, playing as a fullback versus his  accustomed center back role, scored the winner for Spurs in the 82nd minute to snap a four-match losing run for Manager Ange Postecoglou’s side.

Spurs trail Aston Villa by five points for the final Champions League berth entering Tuesday’s match with Manchester City. The defending champions appeared unbeatable on Saturday as they demolished Fulham 4-0, overrunning a Cottagers side which managed only a single shot on the Citizens’ goal. Josko Gvardiol had a brace for Manchester City which continues to get goals from players all over the pitch. On a club rife with dangerous attacking players, defender Gvardiol has scored five goals in his last seven competitions across all competitions. The win over Fulham marked Manchester City’s seventh consecutive league victory with the Citizens having scored four or more goals in six of those matches.

Following the mid-week match with Spurs, Manchester City will finish the season at home versus West Ham while Arsenal is home to Everton. West Ham’s 3-1 victory over Luton town ended a four-match winless run as David Moyes enjoyed a triumphant final contest on the home touchline for the Hammers. Everton also ended its home schedule win a win, defeating Sheffield United 1-0 to extend the unbeaten run for the Toffees to five matches. Abdoulaye Doucoure’s winner was his seventh goal for the Toffees, tying Dominic Calvert-Lewin for the club lead.

Crystal Palace is another squad finishing the season in style as the Eagles downed Wolverhampton, 3-1 for a fifth win in a current six match unbeaten run for Manager Oliver Glasner and his streaking Eagles. Young stars Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze and Jean-Philippe Mateta found the net for the Eagles at Molineux Stadium. Palace could yet enjoy a top half finish.

Brighton and Bournemouth both dropped points to reduce their margin over the Eagles to two points. Brighton, currently occupying 10th on goal differential over Bournemouth, has a makeup match to play against Chelsea on Wednesday. Bournemouth was stunned at home versus Brentford on Saturday when Yoane Wissa scored in the 95th minute of play to capture all three points for the Bees. Bryan Mbeumo had a goal and an assist in the Bee victory while Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke found the net for the 19th time in his breakout Premier League season.  

Friday, May 10, 2024

Premier League Preview: Match Week 37

The penultimate weekend of the Premier League season features Arsenal visiting Manchester United as the Gunners try to keep their title hopes alive. Arsenal leads the table by a point but unfortunately for Gunner fans, second place Manchester City has an additional match to play next Tuesday where, assuming the one-point margin remains after this weekend, the Citizens can more than make up that slim difference. Ironically that make-up match is against Arsenal’s north London neighbor Tottenham Hotspur which will enjoy the unique opportunity to potentially hand a title to its fiercest rival.

First, however, Arsenal must get past another Manchester side at Old Trafford on Sunday. The Red Devils are in a chaotic state, as last week’s loss to Crystal Palace knocked them out of the European places and established a new club mark for greatest number of losses in a Premier League season. Manager Eric ten Hag is being closely scrutinized by new leadership at the club following the ownership investment by Sir James Ratcliffe and his INEOS group. Ratcliffe is shaking up the front office and changes may well extend to his manager and players this offseason. Ten Hag certainly is not impressing anyone with his club’s disorganized and chaotic performances. Having already established the loss record, ten Hag and his merry men must capture five points in their remaining three matches to avoid finishing with Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League point total. A trip to Old Trafford, while still not to be taken lightly, is far less intimidating in the current circumstances.

Arsenal, of course, in its current form should fear no one save for that other Manchester club. Manchester City has its destiny in its own hands as the Citizens are champions if they win their next three matches. The first leg of that trifecta comes at Craven Cottage versus Fulham on Saturday. The Citizens are massive favorites to triumph over a Fulham side which has won only one of its last seven matches, scoring just five goals over that stretch. Manchester City has seemed to find an even higher gear as they close in on another championship. Erling Haaland has rediscovered his scoring touch, finding the net four times in his last outing.

Liverpool’s visit to Aston Villa on Monday seems anticlimactic. The Reds’ title race appears over with Liverpool trailing table leader Arsenal by five points after dropping eight points in their last five league matches. Manager Jurgen Klopp conceded as much in his pre-match press conference. Aston Villa has a seven-point cushion over Tottenham Hotspur for the final Champions League slot despite having been less than impressive as they approach the Premier League season finish line. Villa has won twice, lost twice and drawn twice in its last six league matches and has dropped five of its last six available league points. Aston Villa was also bounced from this season’s Europa Conference League on Thursday by Olympiacos. Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, having scored his first non-penalty goal since March 31st last weekend, will be facing a club against which he has scored seven goals in 10 career appearances.

Tottenham Hotspur hosts Burnley having lost four consecutive league matches for the first time in 20 years. The Champions League is gone and now even Europa League qualification could slip away if Spurs are unable to right the ship these next two weeks. Burnley visits Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday with its Premier League survival on the line. Anything less than three points means Manager Vincent Company and the Clarets are relegated. Even if victorious, Burnley will still need a failed result by Nottingham Forest to stay alive for a final week matchup with the Tricky Trees.

Newcastle is four points back of Tottenham Hotspur as the Magpies host Brighton on Saturday. Unlike Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle is playing well as the season nears its conclusion, winning five of its last seven matches and losing only to surprisingly potent Crystal Palace during that run. Based on current standings, Newcastle would receive the second Europa League berth absent an unlikely FA Cup win by Manchester United over Manchester City.

The FA Cup winner gets an automatic berth unless otherwise qualifying for Europe via table position as would be the case with Manchester City. Both Manchester United and Chelsea are two points behind Newcastle in the fight for Europe with the Red Devils currently the odd man out based on a poorer goal differential than Chelsea. Last week’s humiliation at Crystal Palace leaves Manchester United with a negative goal differential for the season, an ugly blemish on the performance review of Manager Eric ten Hag. Manchester United fans might be forgiven for approaching Sunday’s match with Arsenal with just a bit of trepidation. Chelsea, meanwhile, has earned its way back into the European places with recent performances. The Blues have scored seven goals across their most recent back-to-back clean sheet victories and quickly closed the gap on fading Manchester United to land on an identical point total as the Red Devils. A superior goal differential would break a tie in favor of Chelsea. The Blues visit Nottingham Forest on Saturday where the Tricky Tree will be trying to clinch their spot in the Premier League for next year. Should Nottingham Forest defeat Chelsea and Luton Town fall short in their match at West Ham, the Trees are safe.

Everton has already removed itself from the relegation rabble while Sheffield United are already  condemned. The Blades’ visit to Goodison Park on Saturday is thus virtually meaningless but for giving Everton home supporters the chance to voice their appreciation for the late season surge that has lifted the Toffees. Everton enters its final home match of the season on a four-match unbeaten run which has assured its survival.

Crystal Palace is another club experiencing late season success. The Eagles have won four times during a current five match unbeaten run which has spotlighted the talents of young stars Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze and Jean-Philippe Mateta. Palace will be at Molineux Stadium on Saturday to face a Wolverhampton side which has lost three of four matches. A Crystal Palace victory this weekend would move the Eagles past the currently 12th place Wolves in the Premier League table.

Bournemouth is currently 10th, and a top half finish would be meaningful for the south coast club. Brentford visits Vitality Stadium and its 11,379 Cherries supporters on Saturday. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Premier League Results Match Week 36: Title Contenders Hold Serve; Four Goals for Haaland; Nottingham Forest Takes Major Step In Survival Fight; Spurs and Villa Equally Bad; Crystal Palace Embarrasses Manchester United; Surging Chelsea Closes On Europe

The top three all won in convincing fashion as the Premier League title race nears the finish line. Two more matches for Arsenal and Liverpool, three for Manchester City and the race is run.

Arsenal is making Manchester City work for a possible fourth consecutive championship. Unlike last year when the Gunners collapsed during the stretch drive, this season’s version of Arsenal is playing some of its best football in the season’s waning weeks. The Gunners won a fourth consecutive match by downing Bournemouth 3-0 at the Emirates on Saturday. Arsenal has won 14 of 16 matches in 2024, losing just once. Sadly, that one misstep could cost the title.

Manchester City has been machine like as the Citizens mow down their Premier League opposition week after week. The defending champions handily defeated Wolverhampton 5-1 on Sunday for a sixth consecutive victory which extended their unbeaten league run to 20 matches. Should Pep Guardiola’s side win their remaining three matches, the title is theirs.

Bukayo Saka scored his 20th goal of the season across all competitions in Arsenal’s win over Bournemouth. Leandro Trossard scored for the third time in Arsenal’s last three matches and Declan Rice added a stoppage time goal and an assist in the Gunner victory.

Erling Haaland, meanwhile, put a hammerlock on the Premier League’s Golden Boot with four goals in Manchester City’s rout of Wolves. The striker had a hat trick by halftime as Manchester City sent a strong response to the Arsenal win earlier in the day on Saturday. The Citizens still trail the Gunners by a point but have an additional match to play, leaving destiny in their own hands. Haaland, meanwhile, leads Chelsea’s Cole Palmer by four goals in the scoring race with each player having three matches left to play.

Struggling Tottenham Hotspur was the perfect remedy to Liverpool’s recent stumbles as the Reds handed Spurs a fourth consecutive defeat in a 4-2 final at Anfield. Mohamed Salah and Cody Gakpo each had a goal and an assist in a Liverpool victory which was too little, too late for title hopes. Dropping five of the six available points in the two matches preceding Saturday’s contest created a mountain which seems too steep to climb. Liverpool trails Arsenal by five points with two matches left for each side. Tottenham Hotspur, meanwhile, lost its fourth consecutive Premier League match for the first time in 20 years. Champions League hopes are gone for Manager Ange Postecoglou’s side and while Europa League qualification still seems assured, it has become a distressing end to a season which began so brightly under the Australian manager.

Given Spurs’ collapse, Aston Villa has not needed to be much better to protect its top four status. The Villans lost to Brighton 1-0, dropping points for the fourth time in the club’s last six league matches. Aston Villa has been poor for the better part of its past three matches across all competitions, squandering a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw with Chelsea last week before suffering a shocking 4-2 home defeat on Thursday to Olympiakos in the first leg of the Europa Conference League semifinals. Joao Pedro was the architect of Aston Villa’s downfall on Sunday as the Brighton center forward broke up a goalless deadlock with an unconventional 87th minute winner. Pedro’s penalty kick was saved by Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen, but the Brighton player was able to head in the rebound for his 20th goal across all competitions this season for the Seagulls. Aston Villa now needs to quickly regroup for the second leg in Greece versus Olympiacos this Thursday.

Chelsea could be playing in Europe next year. The Blues moved past Manchester United into seventh position, on goal differential, with a 5-0 thrashing of West Ham on Sunday while a ragtag Manchester United side lost 4-0 to Crystal Palace Monday at Selhurst Park. Chelsea routed beleaguered West Ham as young stars Nicolas Jackson, Cole Palmer, Noni Madueke and Conor Gallagher all made the scoresheet. The often-criticized Jackson had two goals to move his season total to 13 Premier League scores, a figure that favorably compares with the 10 goals registered by Chelsea legend Didier Drogba in his debut season. A late season surge by Manager Mauricio Pochettino’s side has seen Chelsea win six and draw five of their past 12 Premier League matches, a run of success marred only by the singular disaster at Arsenal in mid-April.

Less than twenty-four hours after the heavy defeat on the part of West Ham, the Hammers and Manager David Moyes announced a mutual parting of the ways, effective the end of the season. Julian Lopetegui, who managed Wolverhampton through a relegation battle last season before abruptly resigning, will be taking over for Moyes in East London.

The future of Manchester United Manager Eric ten Hag is more in doubt after his club’s awful performance in London on Monday. The Red Devils have tumbled out of the European places by winning just one of their last seven matches while Newcastle and Chelsea have closed and overtaken Ten Hag’s squad. Crystal Palace repeatedly sliced though a disorganized Manchester United lineup riddled by injury absences on Monday. Casemiro was particularly poor in an unaccustomed center back role. Fellow center back Johnny Evans at 36 years old was no match for Crystal Place’s young, talented attackers. The Red Devils’ attacking threat, meanwhile, was severely diminished by the injury absence of Bruno Fernandes. Crystal Palace’s talented young winger Michael Olise scored twice, assisted both times by Daniel Munoz, as the Eagles landed a fourth win in a five-match unbeaten run. Jean-Philippe Mateta also found the net for the Eagles, blasting his fifth goal in the Eagles’ last four matches as Crystal Palace now presents a formidable attack under Manager Oliver Glasner. Palace is the only club to have defeated Newcastle in the Magpies’ last seven matches.

The Magpies won for the fifth time in that stretch when they likely ruined Burnley’s survival hopes with a 4-1 win at Turf Moor. Newcastle was ahead 4-0 by the 55th minute, rendering Dara O’Shea’s 86th minute score for Burnley entirely meaningless. Alexander Isak was amongst the goal scorers for Newcastle as the Swedish international notched his 20th goal of the season across all competitions for the Magpies. Newcastle now leads Chelsea and Manchester United by two points for a Europa League invite. Burnley, meanwhile, had given supporters hope for Premier League survival with improved performances in recent weeks. Those dreams were likely shattered Saturday as the Claret defense was shredded by the visiting Magpies while Nottingham Forest took a large step toward safety with a 3-1 win over Sheffield United. Burnley’s not done but is not looking good. The Clarets are five points shy of Nottingham Forest and safety.

The Tricky Trees moved three points clear of Luton Town and the drop line with their win over already relegated Sheffield United. Callum Hudson-Odoi scored twice to move Nottingham Forest closer to locking down a third consecutive season in the Premier League. The former Chelsea player’s second goal was the 100th goal conceded by Sheffield United which tied the Premier League season record of Swindon Town. The bumbling Blades have scored the first goal in their last three matches only to go on to lose all three outings by a combined score of 12-4. Luton Town is a more respectable side but could well be joining the Blades in the Championship next season after the Hatters dropped points at home, drawing 1-1 with visiting Everton. The Hatters desperately needed to capture all three points while Everton secured safety last week and has little more to play for.

Two other teams with nothing to play for, Fulham and Brentford, failed to find the net in a goalless London derby. Brentford’s Ivan Toney, a rumored transfer target for striker needy clubs, failed to score for a tenth consecutive Premier League appearance.