The notion of a ‘39th game’ was roundly and rightly panned when it first surfaced nine years ago, but as anyone up to speed on their Premier League rules and regulations knows, provisions already exist for top-flight clubs to squeeze an extra fixture in.
Playoffs can be held at the end of the season if, as rule C.17 states: “…either the league champions or the clubs to be relegated or the question of qualification for other competitions cannot be determined because two or more clubs are equal on points, goal difference and goals scored, the clubs concerned shall play off one or more deciding league matches on neutral grounds”.
The rule has never had to be enforced before, but as we approach this season’s end, there is a slim – a very, very slim - chance of not just one but two playoffs being held. After 38 games, automatic Champions League qualification and the final relegation spot could still be undecided.
So, what sequence of results would be needed to bring about two one-off, all-to-play-for, 39th games?
Hull City vs Swansea City
Hull 4 Sunderland 0
Swansea 1 Everton 0
Sunderland 0 Swansea 1
Crystal Palace 2 Hull 2
Hull 0 Tottenham 2
Swansea 0 West Bromwich Albion 2
These two sides have shown a tendency to match each other’s results for some months now, but Marco Silva’s side currently sit two points clear of their closest rivals.
However, the Humberside club’s -31 goal difference and 36 goals scored are inferior to Swansea’s respective -29 and 40.
One set of results which would guarantee a relegation playoff would involve Hull picking up their biggest win of the season against relegated Sunderland at the KCOM on Saturday.
If Swansea pick up a narrow win at home to Everton, then beat Sunderland 1-0 themselves the week after, a 2-2 draw between Hull and Crystal Palace would leave both sides level on 38 points, -27 goal difference and 42 goals scored.
If both clubs then matched each other’s results on the final day, a relegation play-off would be assured.
Third place playoff
Liverpool vs Manchester City
Manchester City 3 Crystal Palace 2
Liverpool 1 Southampton 0
Manchester City 3 Leicester 1
West Ham 0 Liverpool 2
Manchester City 2 West Bromwich Albion 1
Liverpool 2 Middlesbrough 0
Watford 1 Manchester City 3
Less likely but still possible is the prospect of a playoff between Liverpool and Manchester City, with the final automatic Champions League qualification spot contested. Confusingly, it would be a playoff to decide which team does not have to play a European playoff at the start of next season.
Liverpool currently have the points on the board and are three clear, with +29 goal difference and 71 scored. City, meanwhile, have a +28 goal difference and 65 scored, with a game in hand against West Bromwich Albion on 16 May.
A playoff could occur if City accrue several high-scoring wins without keeping a clean sheet, while Liverpool keep it tight and win narrowly.
In one set of possible results, City edge past a Crystal Palace side that have performed well against top clubs in recent weeks with a 3-2 win, while Liverpool beat Southampton 1-0 at Anfield.
Both teams win by two goals the week after, City conceding in a 3-1 win against Leicester. Their defence is breached in their game in hand too, with them beating Tony Pulis’ Baggies 2-1.
On the final day, Liverpool stick two past the goal-shy Middlesbrough, while City let one slip in a win at Watford. Both finish with identical league records - crucially, 78 points, +34 goal difference and 76 goals scored each.
Needless to say, such a sequence of results is unlikely. Not only does it involve both sides winning all their remaining games, but also because it relies on Liverpool’s leaky defence keeping three consecutive clean sheets.
How likely is all this?
Very, very unlikely.
These are not the only configurations of results that could produce each playoff, and other playoffs remain mathematically possible too. However, even the relatively reasonable sequences of results selected above are, of course, unlikely to pass.
Any chance of one playoff, let alone two, is remote. We can but dream.