In case I haven’t been clear enough on this fact already, this season has been the best Premier League season I have ever seen. At the bottom we have had one of the most captivating relegation contests, whilst at the top, Man United’s fall from grace has opened the door for one of the most open title races I can remember.
However, it’s not just at the top and the bottom that things are being fought for. With Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea nailed on to finish in the top three positions and thereby clinch the three automatic Champions League spots, there is only one remaining spot in Europe’s premier cup competition up for grabs.
The race for fourth is as open as the title race and for each club fighting for that final spot, whether or not they will be able to finish in that coveted fourth spot will be season defining. Let’s take a look at the four contenders for the top four:
Sadly for Arsenal fans, it has been a case of ‘same old story’ for Wenger’s charges this season. With the signing of Mesut Ozil acting as a catalyst back in September, the Gunners went on a barnstorming run at the back end of 2013, striding into an early lead at the top of the Premier League. Then the injuries set in. With Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere out with long-term knocks, Arsenal’s form fell apart.
All of this will no doubt exude a strong sense of déjà vu for followers of the Premier League. The capitulation of Wenger’s side was predictable to the point of being depressing, and the Frenchman must take responsibility for failing to adequately shore up his squad in January. Indeed, I wrote at the turn of the year that Wenger’s “willingness to do business in January could be crucial to any title chances the Gunners might have”. In the end Wenger only added the injured Kim Kallstrom to his squad in the New Year window, and with this unwillingness to invest he threw away any chance his side had of competing for the title.
The only thing that could make Arsenal’s slide down the table even more painful would be if the slide continued, leading them down the table, out of the top four and out of the Champions League for the first time in 16 years.
The good news for Arsenal is that they are the side currently in fourth. The bad news is that they are currently experiencing a woeful run of form and it would take a brave man to bet on them beating anyone right now. Following their 0-3 loss at Goodison Park on Sunday, their fate is no longer in their own hands – if Everton win all of their games they will take the final Champions League spot.
One significant crumb of comfort for Arsenal fans will be the fact that of their remaining five games they will only play one side in the top ten, and given that this is Newcastle – a side who have conceded 11 goals in their last three games – the Gunners will feel that the odds are very much stacked in their favour. Nevertheless, with a trip to the KC Stadium, a visit from West Ham and a final-day clash with relegation candidates Norwich, Arsenal face three games against teams playing a style of football that they have traditionally struggled to deal with. Unless Arsenal’s form can improve, this could be a watershed moment for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger.
The Toffees’ transformation under Roberto Martinez has been absolutely outstanding and the Spaniard deserves significant praise for the way he has transformed not just the way that Everton play football, but also the expectation around the club.
The story goes that immediately after his appointment at Everton, Martinez told chairman Bill Kenwright that he would get the club into the Champions League, and the manager is now on the cusp of doing just that at the first time of asking. If he manages it, it will be another damning indictment of his predecessor David Moyes, who didn’t seem capable of taking the team on to that extra level.
Following their victory over Arsenal, Everton have their future in their own hands. Win all six of their remaining games and they will qualify for the Champions League. The issue for Martinez’s side is that they have probably the hardest run-in of the sides competing for fourth, and it would take a further elevation of performance for the Merseyside club to get there. As well as crunch games against both Manchester clubs, Everton must also face two clubs fighting for their lives: Crystal Palace and Hull City. Slip up against either and the chances of fourth all but evaporate.
Despite the challenges ahead, only a fool would conclusively bet against Martinez and his charges. The Spaniard has performed wonderfully well at Goodison Park, and the confidence that his side showed against Arsenal indicated that they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with big sides. Facing United and City will no doubt prove difficult, but with both of those matches at home, Everton have the quality and tactical nous to win both fixtures. Do that, and they really will be in the driving seat.
In truth, it is highly unlikely that Everton or Arsenal will not win the race for fourth, but while there is a mathematical chance, we are duty bound to consider it.
Spurs started the season with serious optimism, having heavily invested in the squad after the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. That optimism proved misplaced, however, and after a few poor results, Portuguese head coach Andre Villas-Boas was given his marching orders. In stepped Tim Sherwood, who has presided over a Jekyll-and-Hyde style second half of the season.
At times, Tottenham have looked like a team that could achieve something, but perhaps more often they have looked embarrassingly short of quality, and a world away from the other clubs in the top six. Their numerous capitulations against the top clubs (with a total of 20 goals conceded in their home and away fixtures with Liverpool and City alone) has displayed the great chasm that currently exists between Sherwood’s side and the top clubs in the division, and it really is a case of ‘whatever next?’ at White Hart Lane.
Nevertheless, Spurs do have a chance of sneaking that fourth spot. They will need results to go in their favour, but given that Arsenal are in woeful form and Everton have to play the two Manchester clubs, it is certainly not outside the realms of possibility. With no games against any other club in the top nine, Spurs have the easiest run-in of the four competing clubs. Clinching fourth would top off what has been a typically topsy-turvy Tottenham season, and would almost certainly buy Sherwood the time he so earnestly desires.
We have covered the demise of Manchester United in great detail on the pages of this website so we won’t go into great detail here. It goes without saying that United have had an absolutely shocking season, and are almost certain to finish in their lowest league position since 1990.
It is highly unlikely that United can finish in the top four, but on the basis that it is a mathematical possibility, we will consider it. On paper, United’s run-in is as straightforward as Tottenham’s and if they win their remaining five games, they will finish on 72 points. For this to result in them clinching the final Champions League spot would necessitate Arsenal extracting less than eight points from their final five games, Everton nine or less from their last six and Spurs twelve or less from their final five. Moyes would require all three of those elements in order for his side to have a shot, and even then they would need to win all of their games. In short, it is almost certainly too long a shot for the Old Trafford faithful.
There is, however, another way that United could spoil the party. If the champions can somehow overcome Bayern at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night, and then win their next three games in the Champions League, Moyes’ side would be able to pull the rug from underneath whoever finished in fourth by qualifying in their stead. The chances of that happening? About 50 times slimmer than them qualifying via league position. Sorry United fans, you’re set for a year (at least) in the wilderness.
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