IN a season like no other, a familiar end is in sight. Manchester City won the Premier League with something to spare and, in a repeat of the 2017/18 and 2011/12 campaigns, their neighbours United finished runners-up. Meanwhile, the race for Champions League places has gone to the wire and there is plenty of reason to suspect that the berths will be taken by two of the traditional heavyweights. Plus ca change, you might say.

While everyone was distracted by West Ham and Leicester City’s progress, Liverpool were silently creeping into the top-four reckoning. Over the course of their last 10 games, they have lost just once. There can be no doubt that a favourable fixture run has helped bolster the numbers but there was still the headline win over Manchester United at Old Trafford to consider. Chelsea, too, have lost just twice in 18 Premier League games to leave them a point clear of Liverpool and Leicester, who sit in fourth and fifth respectively on 66 points.

Underpinning Liverpool’s recent run has been Jurgen Klopp’s use of two recognised centre-backs in the heart of his defence. The season-wrecking injuries to Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk prompted more permutations for the German to consider than an overworked stockbroker.

Any combination of Jordan Henderson, who won the player of the year award last season’s for his work as a box-to-box midfielder, Fabinho, Ozan Kabak, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips have been deployed as the outgoing champions have sought to solve their defensive woes but it is the unheralded latter pairing who seem to have brought stability with Liverpool conceding just three times in their last four matches.

While the overriding sense is that it has been a dreadful season for Liverpool, closer inspection reveals that their season unravelled around a 12-game spell between January and March when they lost eight matches.

Tellingly, the return of Thiago Alcantara – widely perceived to have had an unremarkable first season in English football – triggered an uptick in fortunes. Since the Spaniard returned to the starting XI, Liverpool have kept the ball better and so the results have followed with seven wins and two draws in the games he has played. It would be a surprise if that run did not continue at home to Crystal Palace this afternoon.

It is redemption of sorts for Thiago. Klopp has recognised that the midfielder has struggled but, ominously, he believes he has finally found his feet.

“Thiago, in a really difficult season, has become a very important player for us,” the German said earlier this month. “That is the most important thing you can say about him.”

Liverpool’s upsurge in fortunes has contrasted with that of Leicester. Brendan Rodgers’ side lifted the FA Cup last weekend and at that point seemed snugly tucked up in the Champions League places but a flick of Alisson’s head later, followed by a defeat in midweek at the hands of Chelsea – the team they beat to lift the FA Cup – then another Liverpool win against Burnley and suddenly a season that looked immaculate for Rodgers has suddenly appeared a little less idyllic.

Leicester were last out of the top four on December 5 and yet, for the second season in succession, the same scenario is playing out: Rodgers’ side surrendered their place in the Champions League places with just one match of the season remaining last time round and deja vu has struck once more.

Back in July, it was an unravelling that seemed to speak to a lack of bottle, this time they have been a little more unfortunate.

Momentum-busting injuries to talismanic players at crucial times have bitten hard: Harvey Barnes has had two knee operations, James Maddison has been beset by hip problems and their latest casualty is Jonny Evans to a heel ligament complaint. Jamie Vardy has missed time, too, and each absence has had a debilitating effect.

Nevertheless, they play a gutless, listless Tottenham, who have plenty of problems of their own, and Leicester should win with something to spare.

Then there is Chelsea. The London club have been almost flawless in the league since the appointment of Thomas Tuchel – notwithstanding a bewildering home defeat at the hands of since-relegated West Brom. With a final-day encounter against Aston Villa today, they are not assured of a Champions League spot but you suspect they should have enough in reserve.

Should Liverpool and Chelsea hold what they have, then the final four placings will have a familiar ring to them after half of a Covid-disrupted season in which none of the big guns seemed to want to take control in the title race.

Of course, this will be no plucky tale of triumph over adversity. City, United, Liverpool and Chelsea – the four richest clubs with four of the highest wage bills will occupy the seats with the most lucrative rewards when the musical-chair season that has been 2020-21 finally comes to a halt. Can it really be only a couple of weeks since all of English football was crying foul over the uncompetitive nature of the European Super League?

The plaintive cries from the FA, the Premier League, Sky, the government and just about everyone else about that ill-fated competition’s closed-shop status had a hollow ring at the time. The status quo remaining makes those complaints sound even less credible.