Currently, the race for Champions League Football in the Premier League resembles one of those twisted and creepy advertisements that occur between innings at baseball games in which different sausage brands, sodas, or baseball helmets race across the jumbotron. One competitor takes a resounding lead before they trip, allowing the following racers to overtake them. Ultimately, the race ends in a photo-finish in which neither the strongest or weakest wins. Instead, the surprising third place sausage or Coke can storms to victory as the clock winds down. It’s a rather pathetic analogy, but I challenge anyone to find a more fitting parallel to the hellish madness of the top 4 race.
As things currently stand, Tottenham hold third place with 61 points, Arsenal are fourth with 60, Manchester United sit outside of the top 4 in fifth with 58, and Chelsea are sixth with 57 – though Chelsea have a game and hand which, if they win, will see them tied with Arsenal for fourth place. With this season’s high-speed merry go round of top 4 spots not slowing down as the season heads for an emphatic finish, a final match situation in which all four teams kick off game 38 not knowing where they will finish is entirely possible. Such a mouth-watering finale, however, relies on each team’s sustained good form or the inevitable breakdown of all four teams from European competition and grueling March and April schedules.
The following is a team by team breakdown of why Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea will end the season behind Manchester City and Liverpool, taking home the European sweepstakes that are the third and fourth place positions in the Premier League Table.
A few weeks ago, Premier League pundits could not wait to utter the phrase, “Don’t forget Spurs, they’re true contenders,” whenever discussing the Title race between Liverpool and Manchester City. Faced with the pressure of having to deliver on the promise of a stacked lineup and a good position in the league, Tottenham imploded… immediately. Losses to Burnley, Chelsea and, most recently, relegation warriors Southampton, have made February and March months to forget for the north London side. Even with the return of both Dele Alli and Harry Kane from the injury list, Tottenham’s form has continued to plummet like a Boeing 737.
Of all the teams in the top 4 race, however, Spurs are the last anyone would have expected. After summer and winter transfer windows in which they brought in 0 players, Dan Levy and the Tottenham board were criticized heavily for not believing in investing in their squad that is stacked with homegrown talent and budding rejects. Pocchettino and his team of wonderkids, however, has proven yet again that this Spurs team is generations beyond the Tottenham side of decades past. No longer do they skimp along in the shadows of Arsenal. No way, this is a side that beat Dortmund 4-0 on aggregate in the champions league, that have arguably the best striker in world football, and that have the most valuable young manager at the helm who, as of last month, was being courted by both Real Madrid and Manchester United for long term managerial positions. Spurs should be flying at their peak success in the history of the club. The ruthlessness of the Premier League, however, yields to no one. If Tottenham can manage to return to their early season form in which they brushed aside lower league opponents and held their ground at Wembley, they can lock down the third or fourth spot without breaking a sweat. The upcoming Champions League quarter-finals and difficult league matches such as Liverpool away loom on the horizon. Bad results in these matches could send Spurs spiraling away from the progress they have made great strides to achieve in recent years. Spurs, however, will be entering their new stadium any week now and will hope to break in their new White Hart Lane with a series of good results. Whether the new ground is a curse or a spark, however, remains to be seen.
Here’s a surprise – Arsenal has been inconsistent in recent weeks. Shocking, I know. After an embarrassing loss to Rennes 3-1 in the Europa League, Arsenal set the Emirates alight with a clinical 2-0 thrashing of the recently invincible Manchester United. Their win over the reds from Manchester was the most impressive and significant win of the Emery era. Whereas in recent years a loss to such an unthreatening side as Rennes would have sent an Arsene Wenger side reeling for weeks, Arsenal responded. They picked their heads up and set out to prove why they belong in the real European competition – the Champions League - next season regardless of whether or not they can beat mediocre Europa League opposition.
Sealing three points against United allowed the Gunners to hop into fourth place. To retain that position, Arsenal must not struggle against bottom table opposition as they have been prone to do all season. Their weak back line and inconsistent attack have often left them struggling to secure deserved points. Arsenal, however, is a team in a feverish race against their history, struggling to get back to their heights of the early 2000s. After knocking United out of their way, Arsenal is now tearing at the heels of rivals Tottenham, desperate to make up the single point dividing them and reinstating their favorite tradition, St. Totteringham’s day.
Before last weekend, Manchester United was perhaps the most in-form team in Europe. After sacking Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has brought swagger and, more importantly, wins back to Old Trafford. The Solskjaer regime had reached its apex days earlier when United stormed Paris, knocking PSG out of the Champions League with an emphatic (and lucky) 3-0 win. Along with a revival of results, Solskjaer has played the role of Jesus with the Lazarus figures in his starting 11, raising them from the dead to regain their world-class form. After hitting career lows under Mourinho just months ago, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, and, most recently, Romelu Lukaku look to be set for the greatest half-seasons of their careers. As the victories piled up and the United supporters sang The Stone Roses louder and louder, the team’s trajectory looked set to place them back atop European football for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
In football, however, a single weak performance changes everything. That performance came last weekend in United’s 2-0 loss to Arsenal. The match barely resembled Solksjaer’s direct, fast-paced style that has led to such good performances in recent weeks. Instead, United was sloppy and uninspired. For Manchester United to return to the pantheon of European football, they must finish the season in the Champions League positions. For United more than any other top 4 contenders, the status of European competition is most important. To attract their desired transfers and to satisfy their advertisers, United need to shine as bright as they possibly can. And in the world of club football, no stage shines brighter than the Champions League.
Of those in the race for the top 4, no team has fallen further than Chelsea. After beginning the season with a surprising surge to the top of the table beside Liverpool and Manchester City, Sarri-ball ground to a stuttering stop. Turmoil within the dressing room, Kepa-gate, and Hazard’s inevitable departure for Real Madrid have made the 2018-2019 season one to forget for Chelsea fans.
Lately, however, Chelsea’s inconsistent performances have leveled out in favor of successful results. In the Europa League, Chelsea currently looks like the team to beat as they charge towards victory in the European Ivy League – perhaps their most accessible route to the Champions League. If they fail to win the Europa League, thus failing to enter the Champions League through this backdoor of European victory, Chelsea must rely on consistent league performances and the self-destruction of their top 4 rivals. Compared to Arsenal, United, and Tottenham, however, Chelsea has been the most prolific offensively throughout the season, creating nearly 100 more chances than the next best team. Their woeful chance-to-goal rate, however, emphasizes their struggles to put the ball in the back of the net. If their inability to kill off teams and secure required points continues, Chelsea’s downward spiral will continue. For the blues, the inevitable departure of a super-star, a looming transfer-ban, and an exiled owner marks the lowest point in the club’s history since being purchased by Abromavich nearly fifteen years ago. If Chelsea pulls themselves back into the top 4 by the end of the season, however, they will have made a massive step out of the depths of Europa League monotony, back into the shining lights of the Champions League.