Even though the Premier League finale produced oscillating fortunes in the chase for the Champions League, a chaotic season ended fairly predictably on Sunday.
Liverpool and Chelsea squeezed out Leicester to secure top-four finishes that seemed out of reach at times in a pandemic-compressed season that stretched squads to the limit.
Chelsea could even afford to lose 2-1 at Aston Villa and still take fourth after Leicester was beaten 4-2 by Tottenham.
“There are no celebrations now around the dressing room,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said. “It’s a big relief.”
Jumping into third was a triumph reflecting Liverpool’s readjusted targets in a season of struggles and injuries after surrendering the trophy to Manchester City, while Manchester United was runner-up.
“From nowhere to the Champions League in five weeks — that’s a massive achievement,” Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp said after Sadio Mane’s goals clinched a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace. “I’m really happy for the Champions League they don’t have to play without us.”
That sentiment wasn’t evident a month ago when Liverpool and the rest of the eventual top-four finishers were part of a hastily abandoned bid to split from the UEFA competition to launch a breakaway Super League.
Of the two other English rebels who tried to kill off the Champions League, Arsenal missed out on qualifying for Europe completely with a second successive eighth-place finish despite beating Brighton 2-0 and Tottenham will have to settle with contesting the new third-tier Europa Conference League after taking seventh.
It was just the type of wild climax to a domestic season that would have ended with a Super League locking in permanent places for 15 clubs, including the six from England, without the need for annual qualification.
Leicester, which wasn’t invited to join the breakaway, spent more days in the top four than any other team before dropping out after losing to Chelsea in the penultimate round. Ultimately those 242 days counted for nothing after surrendering the lead to Tottenham when a victory would have dislodged Chelsea.
“We are lucky Tottenham did the job for us,” Tuchel said.
It was an agonizing conclusion for Leicester, which also missed out on breaking up the established elite last season on the final day.
At least Europa League-bound Leicester got to parade a trophy on the pitch after winning its first FA Cup last weekend.