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

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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.

Pardew laments firing, credits Palace turnaround to new players

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Alan Pardew knows why Crystal Palace was failing when he got fired, knows he could’ve fixed it, and seems pretty bummed he’s not there any more.

Pardew emerged to make the comments after Sam Allardyce helmed another upset win for Palace, a 2-1 win over Liverpool which joins defeats of Arsenal and Chelsea.

The win moves Palace 12th, and the Eagles have a legitimate shot at a top-half finish despite their poor start to the season. But Pardew wants fans to know it was about a personnel mistake, and that Palace dropped into the relegation zone after he was fired.

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

The Northeast Chronicle says Pardew aimed to bring former Newcastle left backs Davide Santon and Paul Dummett to Palace, but couldn’t get the moves over the line. Then Pape Souare was hurt in a car accident and Palace was in trouble.

Over to you, Pards (From the Chronicle’s Lee Ryder):

“We were kicking ourselves not to have any left-footed cover. We were playing right-footed players there and things were exploiting that situation. We became one dimensional.

“I was really disappointed I didn’t get to the window because Sam Allardyce followed me and the results didn’t really improve until the new players got bedded in and they made a big difference.”

Allardyce brought in Patrick Van Aanholt from Sunderland and Jeff Schlupp from Leicester to shore up the left side.

The story is made more amusing by the fact that Allardyce has not hesitated to make Palace’s return to form almost exclusively about his influence, while Pardew bleeds the very same blood.

Who’s on first?

Atletico Madrid at CAS to fight FIFA transfer ban

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Atletico Madrid officials are at sport’s highest court to appeal against a FIFA transfer ban that will prevent the club from signing youth players from overseas during the coming offseason.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport is hearing the appeal Monday, but says a verdict is not expected immediately.

Atletico and FIFA previously agreed to seek a CAS verdict by June, before the summer trading period opens.

[ MORE: Griezmann’s advisor speaks on future ]

FIFA imposed a one-year ban on registering new players as punishment for Atletico breaking rules introduced to prevent child trafficking and luring youngsters from their home country.

Atletico denies wrongdoing, though it agreed not to sign players in January while its appeal went ahead.

Spain’s soccer federation has been criticized for its role in player registrations, with Barcelona and Real Madrid also having served FIFA transfer bans.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Southampton

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  • Chelsea won 2-0 on Oct. 30
  • Saints won fixture 3-1 last season
  • Chelsea 13W-2L at home this season
  • Blues lead all-time 40W-28D-28L

Chelsea aims to stack some wins following a momentum-restoring weekend win when Southampton visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday (Watch live at 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Blues have lost two of four inside the Premier League — home to Crystal Palace and at Manchester United — but beat Spurs 4-2 in a thrilling FA Cup semifinal this weekend, extending their season to a May 27 final against Arsenal.

Saints are coming off their first loss in four outings, a 3-0 home beatdown at the hands of Manchester City. Now to the road, where Southampton has the eighth-best record in the Premier League. And Saints boast Manolo Gabbiadini, who Chelsea boss Antonio Conte says has one of the world’s best left foots.

What they’re saying

Chelsea’s David Luiz on Antonio Conte“He’s a fantastic person before a fantastic manager, so we talk a lot, every day, because we have a great relationship,’ he explained. We try to give our best for our club and he tries to help me with his intelligence for football to improve my football so I am very happy to work with him. He did an amazing job in this game.”

Southampton’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg on facing Chelsea“Of course, you say every game is important, but somehow, when you play against number one, it gets a little bit more important. I saw the game they lost against Manchester United, and now they are a little bit under pressure, and we also want to continue getting good results. Chelsea away is, of course, maybe the toughest game this year, but I think that we have the possibility to get the result.”

Prediction

Rested Southampton provides a real test, but one which Chelsea finds a way to pass thanks to a relatively rested Costa and Hazard. This is Costa’s day, with a brace in a 2-1 win.

Griezmann’s advisor namechecks Man Utd, 4 others

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Antoine Griezmann has maintained a desire to stay at Atletico Madrid, but his advisor says the French striker has five realistic destinations for next season if he doesn’t stay at the Vicente Calderon.

Speaking on the French outlet Telefoot, advisor Eric Olhats says the 26-year-old Griezmann is limited by his $109 million release clause.

[ MORE: Zlatan’s comeback vow; Mata close ]

Griezmann has 25 goals and 11 assists this season, slightly lighter on the goals and a step up in helpers with Atleti alive in two competitions this season. He’s still played centrally and wide right, and Yannick Carrasco is starring on the left.

From Sky Sports:

“There is an unavoidable 100m clause so that restricts the number of candidates. You have United, City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

“United were the first to come and see us and the most concrete in their wishes.”

Griezmann to the Premier League is a move many would love to see, or at least a new challenge for the fantastic attacker. With respect to Barcelona and Real Madrid, we’ve seen plenty of top La Liga talents move within the division.

Of course, there would be something special to both Diego Simeone and Griezmann winning the UEFA Champions League and defending it at Atleti. Something tells us their fate in this year’s semifinal against Real Madrid may tip the scales for both men, or at least Griezmann.