After plenty of early promise, the 2016/17 Premier League season has made the classic mistake of settling most of its key issues too early.
Chelsea won’t be complaining, of course, and nor will the likes of Crystal Palace and Swansea City after confirming their safety with a week to spare. That leaves us with the battle for Champions League qualification representing the only major sub-plot left for the final day.
There is still some intrigue here, with the potential (if unlikely) schadenfreude of Manchester City or Liverpool getting pipped at the post by an Arsenal side who looked dead and buried just last month. But it doesn’t even come close to the situation in 2003 with regards to box-office appeal.
On the final day of the 2002/03 season, a de facto Champions League play-off took place at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea and Liverpool were locked on 64 points each going into the final round of games, and the fixture list just happened to have the pair playing each other in a winner-takes-all scenario (technically a draw would have been fine for Chelsea, but the narrative isn’t as clean that way).
“To be deserving of a (top-four) spot, we needed to be in it for a long period of time and that just never happened for us,” recalls Harinder Singh, a Liverpool fan who tells me he has been following the club home and away for ‘as long as his beard has been growing’.
Singh points to a game at Anfield against Manchester United in November that pushed the Reds out of the title race and into a race for a lesser prize – a game for which he has not forgiven then-United striker Diego Forlán – but it was a failure to hold on to leads that characterised their failure to secure a top-four finish.
The Reds had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the penultimate game at home to Manchester City, and they failed to stay in front yet again in West London.
For all of two minutes, we were on course to see Gerard Houllier’s team at football’s top table. Sami Hyypiä headed the visitors in front, to the delight of the as-things-stand geeks up and down the country. However, as Singh puts it, “We were in the lead and then we weren’t in a manner that had come to undo us a few times.”
“You can almost trace the entire narrative that surrounds the race for the top four to that one match 14 years ago,” journalist and lifelong Liverpool fan James Dutton tells me.
“I think the most frustrating part of it was taking the lead so early and throwing it away. I remember rushing out of the room after Sami Hyypia had opened the scoring, and it was 1-1 by the time I got back in.”
It was Marcel Desailly who brought the hosts level before Jesper Gronkjær’s did-he-mean-it-or-did-he-just-slip finish from the edge of the box settling the tie just before half-time. In a sense, it’s almost fitting that the Blues sealed Champions League qualification with a slip only to see glory in the same competition elude them for the same reason five years later.
“Jesper Gronkjaer seemed to epitomise everything about that Chelsea squad at the time,” Dutton adds. “A decent international player but frustratingly inconsistent. It had to be someone like him to write himself into folklore that day.”
The rest is history as far as Chelsea are concerned. Less than two months later, Roman Abramovich bought the club and ushered in a new big-spending era with the signings of Hernán Crespo, Claude Makélélé, Damien Duff and more in a £100m+ spree in his first transfer window. In a way, Gronkjær’s goal accelerated the end of a Chelsea era when players like the Dane had prominent roles.
As Dutton puts it, “It was incredibly galling to see Chelsea go on the biggest spending splurge I think the Premier League had ever seen that summer. There was certainly a sense that things were never going to be the same again.”
There was a sense of what-could-have-been for the Reds, too, but it’s not all negative. Qualification for the 2003/04 Champions League – a competition which was anyone’s to win, and was eventually claimed by a Porto side against whom Liverpool might have fancied their chances – could well have bought Houllier more time at the helm. And the man who took over from Houllier in 2004 didn’t do too badly in his first season, did he?
“Put it this way, Houllier would not have won the Champions League in 2005,” Dutton explains.
“Benitez was a huge step up in quality and immediately bought better players like Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia. His Valencia side had embarrassed Liverpool a few times in the years before he arrived. You don’t need hindsight to see it was the right move.”
Now, as we go into another crucial final day, things are rather different from a Liverpool perspective. They have a manager with whom they are happy, and whose arc at the club is at a very different point to that enjoyed by Houllier in 2004.
Jürgen Klopp has already shown he can be trusted when it comes to bringing in players capable of taking the Reds up a level, while a victory at home to already-relegated Middlesbrough would cap it all with a return to the Champions League.
It’s a good job Boro don’t have a Danish international in their midfield who will be keen to end a frustratingly inconsistent season on a high. You know, someone like, say, Viktor Fischer. These things don’t happen twice, do they?