Imagine the insanity of March Madness– except all games at the exact same time. Imagine Week 17 of the NFL, with teams battling for the final playoff spots– but all games beginning in the noon slot.
As exciting as some of our favorite sports can be when played on the extreme high-pressure pedestals we place them upon, nothing trumps the final Sunday of English Premier League action.
Every team in the league kicking off at the same moment. Entire seasons, rivalries, legacies, even cities on the line.
Some years, the final Sunday is dominated by relegation battles, when teams who we have shoved in the closets of our minds finally come to the forefront of the sport. Unfortunately, this year, Wigan, Reading, and Queens Park Rangers have already “clinched” relegation.
Last year, the title came down to literally the final seconds of the season, when Manchester City scored not one, but two stoppage time goals to defeat Queens Park Rangers 3-2 to win their first ever EPL title (not to mention that the title was stolen from City’s hated rivals, Manchester United). You will even hear plenty of American sports nuts who rarely watch soccer call this match the most exciting game in sports history. As a personal hater of superlatives when talking about sports (Bill Simmons, I love you, but there’s no way that Heat-Bulls streak snapper was the best regular season game in the history of the NBA), I cannot say I can think of anything crazier than those two hours in Manchester exactly one year ago. I was going to link a Youtube video of the end of this game, but there were too many fantastic ones, yet at the same time, none that did the game justice (although this one will get some laughs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrpDTnznE-E).
The final weekend of this year’s EPL season will come down to a fight between London rivals Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur for the final two spots of UEFA Champions League qualifying. The UCL is not only a huge money machine for these EPL teams; the world’s top stars generally will not accept anything less than playing for a Champions League club. After winning the title, qualifying for the UCL is the greatest domestic goal for European clubs.
The top four teams in the EPL each year qualify for the next season’s Champions League, a 32-team tournament pitting all of Europe’s best teams against each other. This year, Manchester United and Manchester City have already locked up the first two UCL spots. It is important to note that there is a strong incentive to place third over placing fourth because the third-place club automatically qualifies for the UCL, whereas the fourth-place club must play in another qualifying tournament in the fall. The qualifying tournament has given EPL teams little trouble over the years, but avoiding some midweek games at the beginning of a very long season is crucial for Europe’s top teams.
Now let’s look at the section of the table that we are focusing on (3 pts for a win, 1 pt for a draw, 0 pts for a loss):
3) Chelsea, 72 pts, vs. Everton (#6 in the EPL)
4) Arsenal, 70 pts, at Newcastle (#11 in the EPL)
5) Tottenham Hotspur, 69 pts, vs. Sunderland (#17 in the EPL)
Let’s break down this Sunday’s scenarios by team:
Chelsea: If Chelsea so much as picks up points, they will clinch the crucial #3 spot. An interesting caveat: if Chelsea draws 0-0 and Arsenal wins 2-1, the two teams will play in a one-match playoff to determine who avoids the qualifying tournament, since the two clubs will be tied on both goal differential and goals scored. Chelsea has already clinched the top four via a commanding advantage in goal differential over Tottenham Hotspur, so they are definitely in the best shape going into Sunday.
Arsenal: Win and they clinch the top four. That is all manager Arsene Wenger can ask of his team during a tough fixture at Newcastle. If Chelsea loses or if that particular scenario mentioned above happens, Arsenal can clinch the #3 spot.
Tottenham Hotspur: The Spurs must win against Sunderland and have their despised rival, Arsenal, simultaneously lose or draw. This is definitely a tough position to be in, but the Spurs still have a good shot at surpassing Arsenal.
While fans of the three London teams competing for the final UEFA Champions League spots huddle around their television sets on Sunday with a sense of fear more than anything else, sports fans around the world will be watching– all at once, in celebration of another heart-wrenching climax unmatched by any sport in the world.
(Note: Arsenal-Newcastle will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 10 AM CST on Sunday)