EEnd-of-season games often have a slightly curious dynamic, a sense of being played against the grain. On the one hand, Manchester City were battling for victory as they chased a fourth league title in five years. On the other, West Ham are enjoying the blows of a season well done and are determined to celebrate the final home game of one of their greatest recent players, Mark Noble.
When Noble arrived with fifteen minutes left, what did that mean? He had only played 308 league minutes this season. Would he have come if it hadn’t been his great farewell? Does it matter? Would Liverpool fans who, if social media is to be believed, have been bizarrely aggrieved by VAR awarding an obvious penalty, would have been aggrieved that West Ham had in fact converted the final quarter of time in testimony?
As things stand, with Lukasz Fabianski saving that penalty from Riyad Mahrez, the score remained 2-2, meaning there is still life in the Premier League title race, whether he The possibility remains that Steven Gerrard could finally win a league title from Liverpool by leading his Aston Villa side to a point or better at the Etihad next weekend. But the Noble factor shaped the game. It was, after all, as pitchside announcer Mark Noble Day insisted: the post-match funeral was so tearful it could have been a burial on EastEnders.
There were edits – “one of our own”, “born in Canning Town, raised in burgundy and blue”, “that grain of Custom House”; a voiceover by Danny Dyer; Ben Shephard in the field; testimonial from fans, at least one of whom had named his dog after him; clips of him in various scenarios in various seasons, beautifully consistent hair (his son, thankfully, seems to have inherited the family split); and a minute of applause in the 17th minute to celebrate his No.16 shirt. Pep Guardiola gave him a hug and a long talk at the final whistle. Even Prince Albert II of Monaco came to pay homage to him.
It has been another good year for West Ham. There were memorable wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, a Europa League run that will be talked about for years and the feeling that the London stadium finally felt like home. Maybe they’ll qualify for the Europa League again, maybe have to settle for the Europa Conference League, but the accolade will never generate the kind of tension that could have harmed the general good mood. One team was relaxed, one was not, and for a time it threatened to cause a serious upset.
It wouldn’t be entirely true to say that West Ham were leading 2-0 at half-time by mistake, but there was an odd feeling that the pressure usually brought on by City dominating the ball just wasn’t the. And when the ball was thrown forward, when the space behind City’s signature high line was tested, Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen galloped briskly after it.
It all seemed extremely fun. City’s press was shaky, their willingness to compete for second balls limited. Were they really going to blow it up in such a characteristic way?
They didn’t, and a draw should still be enough. But it was at least a proper exam, they had to pass a character test and will have another one next Sunday. If they hold out to defend the title, it will have been much harder to win than the 2018-19 title, when City and Liverpool each galloped to win after win in the final two months of the season. It’s been a run-in with at least a few twists and turns, with the possibility of another to come.
The pivotal moment, at the end, came after 65 minutes with the score at 2-1 as Antonio, inadvertently dispatched by Fernandinho, fired his chip at Ederson just wide. If that had gone in – or if Bowen hadn’t slightly selfishly dragged an effort into the side netting when he could have squared it a minute earlier – it might still have been a costly afternoon for City. . As things stand, West Ham have followed the path of so many David Moyes sides before them by falling deeper and deeper, inviting pressure and, inevitably, conceding.
With the scores level, West Ham immediately came out and City started to look threatened again. City had chances to win it and they were, of course, the better side because xG have had them in every game this season but in the minutes after the penalty as they were chasing a winner who actually would have assured the league. title, they were strangely lacking in imagination.
Rodri was thrown ahead, a glimpse of what a great No.9 could look like in a City squad next season, an uncomfortable temporary addition to the line that runs from Niall Quinn to Erling Haaland, and slung crosses in the box – although only Vladimir Coufal scored the equalizer with a diving header into his own net.
After two easy wins, it was all a bit unconvincing from City. But that’s how it should be. That’s what title races are meant to be, with contenders quelling their anxieties as laid-back opponents with little to play for to function, for worse and sometimes for better, on a different set of priorities.