As the antepenultimate weekend of the season comes to an end, we are left trying to eek the last delicious droplets of entertainment from the Premier League. Our mouths greedily seek out the thin trickles of its footballing nectar, this despite the fact that Manchester City won the league weeks ago and we’re basically just watching them acrobatically fellate themselves at this point.
Before we talk about City’s record-breaking excellence, let’s give priority to the last truly great narrative of the current campaign: Arsene Wenger’s whistle-stop tour of Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway, as his 22-year reign at Arsenal comes to an end.
What's in Alex Ferguson's Box?
For a moment, at Old Trafford on Sunday, the Premier League’s golden era was alive and well again. Having been given a frankly tear-jerking greeting from Manchester United fans – let’s just forget all the horrific songs they sang about him over the years – Wenger was greeted on the sidelines by old foe Alex Ferguson, smiling ear to ear.
For those of us lucky enough to live through the late-90s and early-2000s, the highlights of the great Arsenal-Man United rivalry flashed before our eyes: Ryan Giggs with his shirt off and his hairy chest out; Sylvain Wiltord winning the league for Arsenal at Old Trafford; Martin Keown screaming in the face of Ruud van Nistelrooy after the latter missed the spot kick which could have prevented the "Invincibles" season.
Then Jose Mourinho butted in and ruined the nostalgia, not least by masterminding a trademark 2-1 victory over Wenger sealed by an injury-time header from Marouane Fellaini, which – though great banter – was very disrespectful.
If there has been one thing that has been especially surreal about Wenger’s long goodbye to Arsenal, beyond the mere idea of the club without him as manager, it has been his worst enemies in football lining up to be nice to him. Mourinho, a man who famously called him a "voyeur" and a "specialist in failure", a manager with whom he literally could not bear to shake hands for several years, was there laughing magnanimously and patting him on the back when all the evidence of the last few years suggests that they virulently hate each other.
The same applies to Ferguson, who – despite their recent thaw in relations – spent at least a decade looking as if he was one Gallic shrug away from windmilling into Wenger’s technical area. Perhaps that’s why so many people speculated as to what was really in the commemorative box Ferguson gave his former rival, with a 1998/99 winners’ medal, a cake with "8-2" baked onto it and Keown's severed head, _SE7EN_-style, some of the best suggestions.
Pablo Zabaleta, Record Breaker
He may have left Manchester City for West Ham at the beginning of the season, but the Sky Blues still hold a special place in the heart of veteran right-back Pablo Zabaleta. So much so, in fact, that he scored their 100th goal of the season this weekend – City’s second in a 4-1 win at the London Stadium – after briefly forgetting that he didn’t actually play for them.
Not only did Zabaleta help City become the first Premier League team to score 100+ goals in two separate seasons (they scored 102 under Manuel Pellegrini in 2013/14), he even went over to salute their travelling fans at the end of the game. West Ham supporters will naturally be delighted to see their right-back slotting disastrous own goals against them before basking in the adulation of another club’s fans. Still, at least one of their players feels like he’s achieved something this term.
Bottled Penalty Call of the Season…
… goes to Neil Swarbrick, who managed not to give Raheem Sterling a penalty despite the fact he was practically chainsawed in half in the box by West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell. Where some have argued that Sterling is being punished by referees for his more inventive attempts to go to ground in the past, most will agree it’s hard to dive effectively when both your legs have just been chopped off by a tackle from behind.
Last week, after Sterling was overlooked for an individual accolade at the Premier League’s end-of-season awards ceremony, The Daily Mail's headline read: "Raheem Sterling treats himself to a spot of breakfast despite missing out on being crowned Young Player of the Year the night before". Presumably, The Mail will be running a piece today about when it is appropriate for Neil Swarbrick to eat again after his penalty blunder. By their draconian standards, presumably never.
Roberto Firmino’s Blinding Teeth
Good news for Liverpool fans this weekend, despite their grim 0-0 draw with Stoke, as it was announced that Roberto Firmino had signed a new contract. Having arrived from Bundesliga side Hoffenheim in 2015 with a reputation as a mercurial attacker who scored only semi-regularly, the Brazilian forward has turned out to be an all-action gegenpressing fanatic, tackle monster and goal machine who gives opponents one flash of his blindingly white teeth before capitalising on the resulting retinal damage and slotting home.
As Liverpool cruise towards a top-four finish and into the second leg of their Champions League semi-final with Roma this week, keeping Firmino fit and on-form for the end-of-season run-in will be crucial. As such, fuck knows what Jurgen Klopp was doing playing him against a team which can call upon the brutal skills of Ryan Shawcross and Charlie Adam – but, miraculously, Firmino emerged without a single bone broken.