10, 9, 8, ....
We are now in the final countdown of the Premier League. Ten games left. Talk about Europe is on in terms of Europa and Champions League places. So who can qualify for what?
***** QUALIFYING FOR EUROPE DETAILS *****
The top four qualify for the Champions League unless United or Arsenal win the CL and fail to finish in the top four (so the original comment pretty much stands!). We get three places in the Europa League; the FA Cup winners will enter at the Group Stage, the fifth place team will enter at the Play-Off stage and Swansea will enter at the Q3 stage. There is a countback if the FA Cup winner has already qualified for the CL/Europa so that the FA Cup runners up get in and then the sixth in the league and so on. The other place that is up for grabs is the Fair Play award. There are places awarded to clubs from the three leagues that top Europe's fair play leagues - the team qualifying for this is the highest finisher that doesn't qualify through the above routes. For current standings, here's the table: http://www.premierle.../fair-play.html
***** BACK TO THE MAIN TOPIC *****
- Chelsea 1:0 West Brom - routine if uninspiring stuff. Lukakua being unable to play was always going to stifle the Baggies
- Everton 3:1 Reading - another expected outcome, Everton's strong seasonal finish endures
- Man Utd 4:0 Norwich - Shinji steps up to the plate and delivers food for thought for Fergie and Madrid
- Southampton 1:2 QPR - the proverbial coupon buster that has changed the relegation battle
- Stoke 0:1 West Ham - a welcome result for Big Sam to alleviate concerns of getting dragged into the mire
- Sunderland 2:2 Fulham - almost expected, neither team pulling up any trees this season
- Swansea 1:0 Newcastle - about four goals fewer than expected in this one, outcome probably as per predicted
- Wigan 0:4 Liverpool - the false sense of hope Liverpool turned out and battered a bogey side
- Tottenham 2:1 Arsenal - the biggest result of the weekend. Bragging rights and Champions League football
The Man United juggernaut lumbers on at the top, brushing Norwich aside with a Kagawa hat-trick and a fine goal from Rooney to round off a 4-0 win. City travel to Villa tonight knowing that a failure to win will be game completely over in the title race. People who claim it is over already are to quick to dismiss last season's finale. That said, Fergie looks far more focused on the league this season, not taking chances with weaker teams, while still doing what others don't seem to and keeping his squad happy.
So to the London Undercard. If Villa do the unlikely and prevent a City win tonight, Spurs have a real chance at runners-up, something which seemed very unlikely only a few weeks ago. Indeed, had City failed to beat Chelsea, Spurs would be level on points with them. Chelsea appear to be imploding under the Benitez regime. When Roberto departed, they were up there with a real shout. £120m spent in the summer, Champions League winners, surely a big favourite for the title in the early Autumn. Absolutely crumbled under the Unwelcome One, with the crowd now adding Mourinho's name to chants of Di Matteo's. Wenger's having a nightmare at the moment. Walcott off the boil, Wilshire doing well but not yet a match winner and some horrendous defensive displays see the Gunners struggling for a top four place for the first time in a decade and a half. Behind those three come the Merseyside duo, with Everton having a three point cushion over their neighbours. Two somewhat surprises complete the top "half" with Swansea and West Brom doing well on 40 each, two behind Liverpool.
Beyond that, you start looking down the table instead. Stoke, Fulham and West Ham are going through ups and downs and facing mid-table mediocrity square in the face. A 30% strike rate from their remaining fixtures will see them safe. Despite succumbing to United at the weekend, Norwich are only a point behind, with no mention of the relegation they were expected to be facing. The two North East clubs aren't too far behind and really have under-performed this year compared to their squads. Both are two wins above the drop zone and only by the fact that there are some teams really struggling will they be safe come the end of the season.
I think we now need to look at Southampton as potential relegation material. Despite some good players in their squad, there seems a general lack of confidence that they'll stay up. That said, compared to the start of the season, they'd have snapped your hand off to be 3.5 points (goal difference worth half a point!) above the drop in March. QPR's victory has brought the back into the reckoning for staying up - while they may not catch Southampton, they don't have to. Gaining four points on Villa and Wigan would most likely see them overhaul the goal difference - this only goes to make the QPR vs Villa match on March 16th as big a game as there is in the relegation battle. Straight after this coming week's encounter between Reading and Villa of course!
Reading's next six are Villa (H), MUFC (A), Arsenal (A), Soton (H), Liverpool (H) and Norwich (A). That's a maximum of 8 points realistically and even then, they've got to play well.
QPR's next six are Sunderland (H), Villa (A), Fulham (A), Wigan (H), Everton (A), Stoke (H) - not dissimilar in so far as two winnable, two tough aways and two that could go either way.
Villa's next six are Reading (A), QPR (H), Liverpool (H), Stoke (A), Fulham (H), MUFC (A), arguably easier than both Reading and QPR's set with Fulham always beatable on the road, a Stoke side that are riding the crest of a slump, Liverpool up and down like a bride's nightie and the first two are must win games.
Wigan's next six are Newcastle (H), Norwich (H), QPR (A), Swansea (H), West Ham (A), Spurs (H) and West Brom (A), again a fair mix but a list they wouldn't want to swap with the other teams. Villa at home last game!!!!