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.

Napoli president accuses Roma and Liverpool of collusion

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Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has never been one to hold back words, but this one’s quite the accusation. He thinks one of his chief Serie A rivals is in cahoots with a top Premier League side.

“I always had a suspicion that the real owner of Roma is the same as Liverpool, and if this were the case, the two clubs should not be allowed to play in the Champions League,” De Laurentiis said to La Gazetta dello Sport.

Both owners are American, with Liverpool owned by John Henry-led Fenway Sports Group and Roma held chiefly by Massachusetts-born James Palotta. It’s not surprising that De Laurentiis would think this, considering the roots of both men in close proximity. What is surprising is that he’d actually say it in public.

De Laurentiis said that “a little bird has told me a few years ago” that Henry and Palotta were secretly working together, and Napoli’s Italian rivals didn’t take kindly to that.

Roma responded vehemently, with the official Twitter account tweeting a quote from Palotta. “What do you think @ADeLaurentiis is smoking over there in Naples? If he finds that little bird again, he’ll find out we also own Barca and Bayern.”

Roma then released a quote from managing director Mauro Baldissoni, who said jokingly, “He [De Laurentiis] said that this was all suggested to him by a little bird. I don’t know who: I can only think that perhaps Aurelio is listening to the wrong birds! Perhaps we could suggest to him that he should speak a bit with songbirds, who deliver nice melodies rather than speaking nonsense. For our part, we send our best wishes to president De Laurentiis and to Carlo Ancelotti, their coach who remains in the hearts of all Roma fans, along with everyone else at Napoli. We wish them good luck for the new campaign, as we do all the other clubs and players.”

Liverpool offloads Klavan to Cagliari for cheap

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Liverpool is starting to offload some of its extra weight, and it comes at the expense of the back line.

The Reds announced the sale of central defender Ragnar Klavan to Cagliari, with reports in England claiming the transfer fee was a paltry $2.5 million.

That leaves Liverpool with a relatively thin remaining central defensive corps behind starters Virgil Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren, with just Joel Matip and Joe Gomez the only ones left as natural center-backs. It’s a bold move by the Reds in a campaign full of high expectations.

The 32-year-old Klavan joined Liverpool in the summer of 2016 from German club Augsburg for around $5.5 million, but struggled to crack the first team in a consistent manner. Klavan made 39 Premier League appearances in his time at Liverpool, but was pushed back in the pecking order after the Reds brought in van Dijk last January. Still, he made a solid eight Champions League appearances last season – three of them starts – and was an important piece of Liverpool’s squad depth.

Klavan signed a two-year contract at Cagliari, where he will compete for playing time with the likes of Marco Andreolli, Fabio Pisacane, and Luca Ceppitelli.

Premier League Preview: Cardiff City vs. Newcastle

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  • Cardiff City has lost 10 straight league games to Newcastle
  • Newcastle has lost 5 of its last 6 PL games
  • Benitez has lost 3 straight PL games vs newly promoted sides

These teams have both been picked by some to face the drop this year, but if the first result of the season bears any merit, there is promise and hope on each side despite no points gained. Still, a result in this match would go a long way towards building on that foundation as Cardiff City hosts Newcastle at 7:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN.

Cardiff City was a popular pick to finish bottom of the table in various preseason selections, but they were unable to get by Bournemouth despite a positive showing. They’ll need every point they can muster, and the club’s home opener seems as good a time as any. They’ll have loan signing Harry Arter able to make his debut after he was ineligible to face his parent club last time out, but key midfielder Aron Gunnarrsson is still out due to injury.

[ WATCH LIVE: Cardiff City vs. Newcastle live on NBCSN ]

For Newcastle, Rafa Benitez will not have American international DeAndre Yedlin at his disposal thanks to a knee injury suffered in the season opener, although the injury was “not serious” according to a club release earlier in the week. Otherwise, the Magpies are at full strength, a welcome sight for Benitez who has been forced to fight tooth and nail with club owner Mike Ashley to ring out every bit of squad depth he can convince his boss to grab.

A draw in this match would be disappointing for both clubs, and while each will covet every point they can get, each team will believe there are three points for the taking at Cardiff City Stadium.

What they’re saying

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock on Rafa Benitez: “You’ve only got to look at what the fans are saying and what all the pundits are saying, the one person Newcastle can’t afford to lose is Rafa, they could get away with [losing] any player. His commitment to Newcastle has been fantastic and he’s in his last year now so it’ll be interesting to see how that develops because I think he’ll be targeted worldwide really.”

Manager Rafa Benitez on Newcastle’s transfer window: “Everybody is spending big money on players, but will they all work out? We will see. It will be easier for some of our players as they have been in the Premier League for a year, but now other squads are stronger. Is our starting 11 better than before? I hope so, but we’ll see.”

Prediction

Both teams put up a spirited performance in losing efforts last time out, but Newcastle seems the better equipped to take home the three points at this moment in the season. The Magpies will hit the road and grab all three points with a cagey 1-0 victory.

Arsenal loans David Ospina to Napoli

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Arsenal’s goalkeeping backlog has finally been solved.

With Bernd Leno signed this offseason, it seemed David Ospina would be surplus to requirements, and that’s exactly the case as the Gunners ship the Colombian international to Serie A side Napoli on loan.

The Serie A season is set to get under way tomorrow, and Napoli’s goalkeeping situation remains in serious flux after the team completely turned over its entire corps of goalkeepers from last season. The Serie A starter Pepe Reina moved to AC Milan upon the expiration of his contract, plus Luigi Sepe went out on loan and Rafael departed for Sampdoria on a free.

Now, another former Premier League goalkeeper will take over in net. Other goalkeepers on the Napoli roster include Greek international Orestis Karnezis on loan from Udinese and 22-year-old Nikita Contini, plus the injured Alex Meret also on loan from Udinese.

Ospina has been with Arsenal since moving from French club Nice in 2014, but has never been able to earn a true starting role. He started 18 Premier League matches towards the end of the 2014/15 season with Wojciech Szczesny‘s Arsenal tenure coming to an end, but since has made no more than five league appearances in any campaign, stuck behind former Chelsea starter Petr Cech.

However, Ospina often served as Arsenal’s Cup competition goalkeeper, making 14 Champions League appearances and 10 Europa League appearances over his tenure at the Emirates.

The 29-year-old Colombian has 90 caps for his country, including starts in all four matches in the 2018 World Cup this summer, where he performed admirably in a defeat on penalties to eventual semifinalists England.