Off the Crossbar: 3 teams, 1 champion

Saints head coach Sean Payton said he’ll “probably never get over” the blown pass interference call by the referees in this year’s NFC Championship game that costed his team’s place in Super Bowl LIII. The Saints will most likely be back again next year with another chance to make a run for the title. The stakes are much higher for coaches aiming for a top four finish in the English Premier League — failure to do so would cost their teams a spot in the elite Champions League next year — with money and stature on the line. Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham have a seven point gap before the next three teams, leaving Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United to fight for the last coveted champions league spot.

Arsenal, under new boss Unai Emery, has had ups and downs, but looked hopeless last weekend as they were dominated by Manchester City, failing to even record a shot in the second half of its 3–1 defeat. Though Arsenal has had a renaissance under Emery compared to the Wenger days, defensive reinforcements were paramount in the January transfer window after numerous injuries to the back line. However, the club did not have sufficient funds to buy a new defender and still look vulnerable on defense. The Gunners are currently in sixth, three points off fourth-place Chelsea, and face an uphill battle to reach the top four.

When Ole Gunnar Solksjaer took over for José Mourinho, United was eight points off fifth-placed Arsenal, and 11 behind fourth-placed Chelsea. Fast forward six weeks since his arrival, and the Red Devils have gone 7–1–0 in league play and are now ahead of Arsenal and just two points behind the Blues. United has excelled under Solksjaer, playing exciting soccer, but faces a daunting month (PSG twice, Arsenal, Liverpool, City and Chelsea). Will the honeymoon come to an end? The new manager has stars Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba excelling, but the team’s overreliance on David de Gea in goal highlights its defensive frailties.

Chelsea hasn’t clicked yet under Maurizio Sarri, and the manager has showed signs of frustration by repeatedly calling out his players’ lackluster will-to-win. He allegedly locked his team in the locker room an hour after an embarrassing 4–0 defeat to Bournemouth last week to conduct an inquest as to why his team wasn’t motivated in the second half. He got the man he wanted in new striker Gonzalo Higuain, but Chelsea will need Eden Hazard to rediscover his form as he moves back to his favored position on the left wing if they have any hope of remaining in the top four by the end of the year.

Each of these three teams is going to finish the season with a different manager than they ended the last, and these three men are shaping the future for their clubs. While Sarri and Emery had a full preseason with their squads, Solksjaer came in midseason and, so far, has worked wonders with United. That being said, this is the Norwegian’s first big-time head coaching gig, and he doesn’t have anything close to the experience of his counterparts.

With the six big teams in England battling it out for these top four spots, the race is always a treat, and with 13 games to go, this year’s race is looking as good as ever.


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