Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale reacts during their Premier League soccer match against Manchester United at White Hart Lane in London

What’s left in England’s race to finish in the top four?

9 Comments

Technically, Chelsea didn’t sew up a top four finish with today’s win at Villa Park. But if it wasn’t for the most outlying scenarios demanding attention for the sake of accuracy, the possibilities of Chelsea finishing fifth wouldn’t even deserve our attention. Up six points on fifth with a huge goal difference edge, Rafa Benítez would give his first team an early vacation and the Blues would still be playing in Champions League next fall.

But for the sake of discussion (and to see what’s left to decide fourth place), let’s take a look at what remains for England’s third-through-fifth place teams – the three clubs competing for the league’s two final UEFA Champions League.

Current Standings

  • 3. Chelsea – 37 games played, 72 points, +35 goal difference.
  • 4. Arsenal – 36 games played, 67 points, +31 goal difference.
  • 5. Tottenham Hotspur – 36 games played, 66 points, +18 goal difference.

(Manchester United and Manchester City have already secured Champions League spots.)

What’s Left

Chelsea

It almost doesn’t matter. There’s no way Tottenham Hotspur are outscoring their opponents by the 17 goals they’d need to have a chance to take advantage of a Chelsea slip. And if they do, they’ll surely start with a barrage tomorrow at Stoke City, one which will give the Blues a chance to pause and reconsider. ‘Maybe we should take our finale against Everton seriously?’

It’s not going to happen. No way is it even on André Villas-Boas’s radar. The last Champions League spot is all about Spurs and Arsenal.

That will give Chelsea a chance to concentrate on silverware. Wednesday in Amsterdam, the Blues meet Benfica in the Europa League final, a chance to a fourth different European trophy to their selves. It ma not be the honor Blues fans would have wanted (one that required Champions League failure to qualify for it), but years from now, supporters may look back fondly if the honor helps round out the club’s European resume.

Should they do that, expect a second choice team to take the pitch against Everton. The regulars and veterans? They’ll be given a chance to enjoy their title. They may be dealing with some lingering dehydration come kickoff in West London.

Arsenal

The Gunners need win in their last two games to see their way back into Champions League – a competition they’ve been in each of the last 14 years. The only thing standing between them and a 15th straight appearance are a wins against Wigan and Newcastle (or a slip by Spurs).

It’s a fortunate run-in. True, both the Latics and Magpie will be fueled by relegation concerns, but ultimately, you’d rather play bad teams than good. And right now, neither Wigan nor Newcastle are good.

Arsenal host Wigan on Tuesday, three days after the Latics try for their first major trophy in the FA Cup final. Expect Roberto Martínez to start a full team on short rest. Given Wigan’s style and Arsenal’s talents, the Gunners should be able to pass the Latics into submission. Even if things go awry, Arsène Wenger’s men should be able to wait out a late win.

Their final game is at St. James Park, visiting a Newcastle team that’s been one of the league’s worst since spring. The Magpies have only won once since March 10, a 1-0 home win over equally inept Fulham. Amid speculation of a divided locker room and galling performances like the recent 6-0 home loss to Liverpool, Newcastle carry many of the pox of a relegation disaster. Fortunately for them, Wigan may have run out of time.

Tottenham Hotspur

Like Arsenal’s, Spurs’ run-in is relatively easy – a visit to Stoke followed by a finale against Sunderland at White Hart Lane. Their destiny may be out of their control, but with two fixtures against struggling sides, Tottenham can force Arsenal to get full points to take fourth place.

If Arsenal doesn’t get two wins, Spurs can snag a top four spot with two wins. And if the Gunners win out? Spurs are done.

But let’s stop and consider the Spurs season if they do claim two wins. That would put them on 72 points one season after 69 secured a fourth place finish. Last season, 72 points would have claimed third place and pushed Arsenal into Champions League. This year, after losing Luka Modric in August, André Villa-Boas could better Harry Redknapp’s mark.

There’s still a chance 72 will be enough to get Spurs into Champions League. Though Arsenal has been in Champions League every year since 2001, it’s been a long time since they’ve been pushed for a spot, and since the Invincibles started leaving North London, Arsenal hasn’t been above an unexpected stumble.

The odds aren’t short, but for Spurs,  it’s not mission impossible. Unfortunately, their Champions League future remains in their rivals’ hands.

UEFA Champions League final preview — Madrid’s finest Real or Atleti?

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 27:  Diego Simeone head coach of Atletico Madrid looks on during an Atletico de Madrid training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 27, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final isn’t quite the unstoppable force against the immovable object — Real’s defense is good and Atleti has plenty of attacking intent — but it’s fair if you’re expecting the Madrid Derby final to be Diego Simeone’s diligent defenders attempting to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s potent attack.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed ]

Simeone’s built his name on tight teamwork, and La Liga teams broke Atleti down a mere 18 times in 38 matches this season. Before you crow about the weakness of Spain’s top flight from top to bottom, Real only managed a single goal against Atleti in a 1-1 draw that came at the Vicente Calderon. Atleti triumphed 1-0 at the Bernabeu to take four of six points from their derby mates.

But this is the big one, and a rematch of the late thriller we saw in the 2014 final. That’s when Diego Godin’s 36th minute goal came within seconds of being the difference, only for Sergio Ramos to net in stoppage time and Real to score three goals in extra time for a 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Torres ready for “game of my life” ]

Ronaldo will be fine to go, which is obviously bad news for Atleti. While his goal at the end of the 2014 final was just chiseled-ab window dressing, he has scored in both of his UCL finals (He scored for Manchester United in the 26th minute of their 2008 defeat of Chelsea).

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The beauty of Atleti’s defense is how well it springs into the attack, with Godin and Filipe Luis both capable of providing offense.

But really, with respect to Gabi and Antoine Griezmann… that defense! Atleti allowed three goals in the group stage, and just seven across its 12 UCL matches.

How will Simeone aim to stop Real this time around? Will it be banks of four or five, with Torres and Griezmann waiting to strike on a fleet-footed counter? That could serve their disciplined unit well, but something tells me Simeone has something special cooked up for this much-anticipated rematch, and manager is a distinct edge for Atleti against a still-learning Zinedine Zidane.

As an aside, Griezmann has been fantastic, scoring 32 times this year with seven coming in the UCL. Torres is second in scoring, with 12.

Championship playoff preview: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hull City

DERBY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 14:  Eldin Jakupovic of Hull City celebrates as Andrew Robertson of Hull City scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off semi final first leg match between Derby County and Hull City at the iPro Stadium on May 14, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

One is hoping to rejoin the Premier League at the first time of asking, while the other to see its first top flight action since 2000 with a win in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

Hull City did not make the top flight from its inception in 1904 until winning the playoffs in 2008. Since, the Tigers have spent a pair of 2-season stints in the Premier League.

Sheffield Wednesday, for its part, spent nine seasons in the top tier from 1991-2000, but fell as low as League One in the 21st century before a run to the playoffs this season.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Hull’s stingy defense allowed 35 goals this season, tied for the second-best mark in the league, while scoring the fourth-most goals (69). The Tigers finished in fourth place to Wednesday’s sixth, and the sides drew 0-0 at Hull and 1-1 in the reverse fixture.

Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was far and away Hull’s most deadly scorer, notching 21 goals in the Championship this season, while Sam Clucas paced the club with 8 assists.

Wednesday’s scoring was paced by former Watford attacker Fernando Forestieri’s 15 goals. Veteran Gary Hooper added 13 for the Owls, who got a team-best eight assists from Ross Wallace.

It’s the “richest game in sports”, and kicks off at Noon ET Saturday.

Sturridge injured again, Rashford set for England debut

England v Norway - International Friendly
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

GATESHEAD, England (AP) England striker Daniel Sturridge has picked up another injury, potentially affecting his chances of being selected for the European Championship.

England manager Roy Hodgson says Sturridge has a calf injury that has prevented him from training and is a doubt to play in the warmup match against Australia on Friday. Hodgson has until Tuesday to finalize his 23-man squad for the tournament in France.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Sturridge has been beset by injury problems in recent years.

His latest injury increases the possibility of 18-year-old Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford‘s fairytale season being extended to include Euro 2016.

Hodgson said Thursday that Rashford will make his debut against Australia in Sunderland – as a starter if Sturridge isn’t fit. Rashford only made his United debut in February.

Ex-Leicester boss Pearson hired by Derby County

Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nigel Pearson lives.

The combustible former manager of Southampton, Hull City and Leicester City will now lead Derby County in the hopes of Premier League promotion.

Derby has been on the edge of promotion to the Premier League for several seasons, but neither Steve McClaren and Darren Wassall could do the trick.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Enter Pearson, 52, who has been hired on a three-year deal. It’s his first stop since a roller coaster ride saw him guide Leicester into the Premier League, only to be fired in the aftermath of some players being involved in a racist sex tape incident on a tour of Thailand.

This was after a bizarre season that saw him put his hands on an opposing player’s throat, call a journalist an ostrich, and ultimately save Leicester from the drop.

From Derby County’s site:

“I am honoured to be named as the Manager of Derby County, which is one of the biggest clubs in the country, a club in excellent shape and one with strong ambitions. It is firmly focused on achieving Premier League football.

“I will give absolutely everything I have to this role and do all I can to bring exciting, entertaining and winning football which our supporters can be proud of.”

At the very least, the Rams will be interesting to watch next season.