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.

Report: Ashley Cole considering offer from Derby, Lampard

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Ashley Cole probably thought that when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2016, it would be the last club he played for before, literally, relaxing on a beach in retirement.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Considering he was 36 at the time — he is now 38 — it seemed obvious that England’s 107-times-capped left back would play out a final few years in MLS before calling full-time on his decorated career. Three years later, Cole might still do just that.

He might also resume playing after receiving a six-month contract offer from Championship side and promotion chasers Derby County, who are now coached by one of Cole’s longtime teammates and friends at Chelsea and England, Frank Lampard.

[ MORE: Top Premier League storylines for Week 23 ]

Cole has been without a club since his option was declined by the Galaxy following the end of the 2018 season.

According to the Guardian, the chance to play alongside a largely young, but promising, squad of players and to help Lampard guide the club to the Premier League in his first season as manager is very appealing to Cole.

Barcelona reach Copa del Rey QF but could be disqualified

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona earned a spot in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey on Thursday, but its continued participation in the tournament remains under threat.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele led Barcelona to a comfortable 3-0 win over Levante at Camp Nou Stadium, helping it advance 4-2 on aggregate. However, the Catalan club could be disqualified for allegedly using a suspended player in the first leg.

Levante said it will make a formal complaint to the Spanish soccer federation on Friday, ahead of the draw for the quarterfinals.

The four-time defending Copa champion has denied any wrongdoing for using youth player Juan “Chumi” Brandariz in last week’s match in Valencia.

“We don’t have any doubts,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We believe we will be in the draw tomorrow. We did everything right and we won on the field, which is where we had to win.”

Levante said Chumi should not have played because of an accumulation of yellow cards with Barcelona’s “B” team, arguing that his suspension applied to the senior team as well, including in Copa matches.

“We prefer to win on the field, but the regulations exist and everyone needs to follow them,” Levante coach Paco Lopez said. “Let’s see what happens.”

The Spanish federation is expected to rule on Levante’s complaint before Friday’s draw.

Real Madrid was eliminated in the tournament’s round of 16 in 2015 for using striker Denis Cheryshev while he was suspended.

“We are surprised, we found out about it by the press,” Barcelona spokesman Josep Vives said. “We analyzed the situation and concluded that Chumi’s participation was legal.”

With Messi back in the lineup after being rested in the first leg, Barcelona easily reversed the 2-1 deficit from the first match. The Argentine playmaker set up goals by Dembele in the 30th and 31st minutes, then sealed the victory by scoring in the 54th.

Barcelona has made it at least to the quarterfinals in the Copa in nine straight seasons. It won the title five times in the last seven years.

Earlier Thursday, Espanyol defeated Villarreal 3-1 at home with two goals by striker Borja Iglesias to advance 5-3 on aggregate, while Real Betis salvaged a 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad to reach the last eight on away goals after a 0-0 first-leg draw.

Real Madrid, Girona, Valencia, Getafe and Sevilla also made it to the quarterfinals. Atletico Madrid was eliminated by Girona on Wednesday.

Top Premier League storylines for Week 23

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From the title race, to a four-way battle for top-four, to the relegation dogfight currently unfolding, this weekend’s slate of Premier League fixtures is full with a little bit of everything…

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Top-four battle at the Emirates
Arsenal v. Chelsea, 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC [ STREAM ]

Chelsea occupy fourth place heading into the 23rd round of games this weekend, but Arsenal and Manchester United aren’t a million miles back of the Blues — only six points each, to be exact. Saturday’s showdown at the Emirates Stadium could see a six-point swing either way, or an opening of the door for the resurgent Red Devils to leapfrog Arsenal for fifth and trim the deficit between themselves and the UEFA Champions League places.


Will Liverpool slip up/Can Man City keep up?
Liverpool v. Crystal Palace, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBCSN STREAM ]
Huddersfield v. Man City, 8:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

Newsflash: the title race is a pretty important storyline and (likely) will continue to be so for the remainder of the season, barring a collapse by one of Liverpool or Manchester City. The defending champions have the easier matchup, on paper, this weekend as they’ll visit last-place and relegation-bound Huddersfield Town on Sunday. It should be a straightforward challenge for the Reds as well, though, with 14th-place Crystal Palace visiting Anfield on Saturday.


Life without Kane (and Son) begins… again
Fulham v. Tottenham Hotspur, 11 a.m. ET, Sunday, on NBCSN [ STREAM ]

No player in the PL has scored a higher percentage of his team’s goal this season than Tottenham’s Harry Kane (30 percent, tied with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang). The trouble with that is that Kane is set to miss the next two months due to his annual mid-to-late-winter ankle injury. Thus, Mauricio Pochettino will be forced to pick between deploying Fernando Llorente as his starting center forward, or playing without a natural forward, thanks to Son Heung-min’s simultaneous call-up to the South Korea squad for the Asian Cup. Statistically speaking, Dele Alli has had a quiet season thus far (four goals, one assist), but Spurs desperately need Alli to show up and show out in a big way the next month or two.


Solskjaer goes for no. 6
Man United v. Brighton, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on CNBC STREAM ]

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t know what it’s like to lose as manager of Man United. Heck, he couldn’t tell you the first thing about dropping points while in charge at Old Trafford. Five PL games in charge (six in all competitions), and whether or not the “interim” tag should be removed from his title is already an earnest topic of discussion. It wasn’t pretty, but United held on for dear life against Spurs last weekend and secured three points in Solskjaer’s biggest challenge to date. Up next is a visit from 13th-place Brighton & Hove Albion, who toppled United in their first meeting earlier this season.


Relegation six-pointer for Newcastle, Cardiff
Newcastle United v. Cardiff City, 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, on NBC Sports Gold [ STREAM ]

Much like the top of the table, the race at the bottom of the league is heating up. Heading into the weekend, Huddersfield are bringing up the rear, eight points adrift of safety, while Fulham occupy 19th place, five points back of 17th. Newcastle United, who sit 18th and are one point from exiting the relegation zone, will host Cardiff City, the side currently sitting 17th in the table, on Saturday. When you’ve struggled the way these sides have for 22 games, genuine chances at three points don’t come along often. When they do, you absolutely have to take them to have any hopes of surviving the drop.

Asian Cup: Qatar, Japan advance with perfect records

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AL AIN, United Arab Emirates (AP) Qatar finished the group stage of the Asian Cup with a third straight win, beating three-time champion Saudi Arabia 2-0 on Thursday in a highly charged game amid the political tensions between the two nations.

[ Transfer rumor roundup: Klopp wants USMNT starlet; Higuain dominoes ]

Saudi Arabia engineered the regional boycott of Qatar along with the host United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. The Qataris have held firm, denying accusations that they support extremists.

Forward Almoez Ali scored both goals, netting the opener at the Zayed Sports City Stadium with a low shot in first-half injury time and heading home the second 10 minutes from time to help his country beat Saudi Arabia at the Asian Cup for the first time and win Group E with nine points.

Just minutes before the first goal, Hasan Al Haydos missed a penalty for Qatar.

Ali, 22, is the top scorer at the tournament with seven goals and will look to extend his tally in the round of 16 against Iraq on Tuesday.

Earlier in Al Ain, four-time champion Japan rallied from a goal down to also finish the group stage with a perfect record after a 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan.

With both teams already qualified, Japan topped Group F with nine points after winning all three games to set up a knockout-stage meeting with Saudi Arabia on Monday.

[ MORE: Emery on possible exit for Mesut Ozil, reason for his absence ]

Uzbekistan finished second with six points and will open the round of 16 against defending champion Australia.

Oman finished third with three points after beating Turkmenistan 3-1 to secure a spot in the knockout stage for the first time. It will play Group D winner Iran on Sunday.

In Group E In Sharjah, Lebanon got its first win, 4-0 against North Korea and both teams are eliminated.

After Japan routed Uzbekistan in their last two Asian Cup games, 4-0 in 1996 and 8-1 in 2000, it looked like a different story on Thursday in Al Ain when Eldor Shomurodov put Uzbekistan 1-0 ahead five minutes before the interval with his fourth goal of the tournament.

But Yoshinori Muto canceled out that advantage with a header just three minutes later and Tsukasa Shiotani scored the winner in the second half to complete the comeback.

In Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, Muhsen Al Ghassani and Mohammed Al-Musallami scored for Oman in the second half as the team took its first three points of the tournament.

Ahmed Al Mahaijri had put Oman ahead with a free kick 20 minutes into the game before Altymyrat Annadurdyyev equalized later in the first half.