By Andrew Tan
Soccer holds an interesting position in the minds and attentions of American sports fans. The United States is in the minority of countries in which soccer, or futbόl as it is called internationally, is not the dominant sport and — particularly in the case of the U.S. — is not even a major sport.
Fans who do follow soccer in the U.S. generally support teams in big overseas leagues like the British Premier League or the Spanish La Liga, with giants such as F.C. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea. Still, the relative number of soccer fans is quite small within the population of people who follow sports.
Knowing this, I realize that this column may fall on deaf ears, or perhaps no ears depending how far you get in this article, so I will attempt to make the unprecedented stretch run in the Premier League this season as accessible as possible to the casual reader.
Every Game Counts
Unlike the main sports that capture large viewing audiences within the United States, the British Premier League – and all domestic soccer leagues for that matter – does not have a playoff system. Instead the championship is determined based on the sum of results from every game during that season.
In some ways, this method of deciding a league’s champion seems much more fair: the title is given to the time with the greatest body of work by season’s end. Consequently, top-flight teams can rarely phone in a game and must find the right balance between resting players and trying to win every game.
But this setup can also lead to injuries of star players derailing a team’s entire season. If a squad’s best defender is out for 10 games and the team struggles during that stretch, there is no postseason to make up for dropped points.
An even more apparent issue is that these long soccer seasons can often be decided long before the last game of the season, rendering the final however many games, outside of qualification for European tournaments, meaningless for a league’s top clubs. Even in the Premier League, which is often regarded as the most consistently competitive out of Europe’s major leagues, the champion is seldom decided on the final day.
This year, such is the case.
A Battle Between Two Giants
As it stands before matchweek 38, the last of the season, the British Premier League will be decided on the last day of the season for the first time since 2012. Manchester City sit on 95 points and Liverpool on 94.
The former is a new-age powerhouse fueled by an exorbitantly wealthy Arab ownership group that has propelled the club into contention for trophies in all competition for the past several years. The latter is a storied franchise, regarded as one of the all-time most successful clubs in Europe, that has struggled over the past decade but gradually built up to an elite level under a brilliant manager.
(Really both teams have great managers and overall squads, but this is the general public perception of the two teams. My description is also biased considering the fact that I am a Liverpool fan.)
Regardless of which team snatches the silverware on the final day, the runner-up will finish as the most successful second place team in the history of the competition. In fact, assuming both teams win this upcoming Sunday, Liverpool’s 97 points will be by far the most by a runner-up and would win the league in any other season besides 2018-19 and Manchester City’s record-breaking 100-point season last season (2017-18).
So besides the rarity of the champion being decided on last day of the season, these two teams have produced a never-before-seen fight to the end in which both teams deserve to win the championship but only one can.
Add to that Liverpool’s tortured history in the Premier League–the club has not won a domestic title since the competition became known as the Premier League – and you have the makings of the best finish to perhaps any soccer season, across every league, ever.
On Sunday, Manchester City play Brighton and Liverpool face off against Wolves. Both matches kick off at 7 a.m. PST. Anything short of a win from Liverpool would virtually guarantee City the title. Liverpool can win it if they win and City draw or lose.
All will be decided this weekend, in perhaps the most intense morning of soccer England, and maybe the world, has ever seen.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.