Why the Champions League race is still wide open
Who despises immortal phrases and seasoned clichés? If the answer is yes, then you may want to make a swift navigation away. But as the new Premier League season dawns upon us, we’re about to wheel out one of our favourites, but with more than a few good reasons to. “It’s there for the taking,” or so someone once said. But in terms of qualification for the Uefa Champions League, it really is.
As Tottenham Hotspur unfortunately found out last term, five into four doesn’t really fit. Finishing fourth should have all but guaranteed a ticket into Europe’s elite cup competition, but Chelsea’s continental marvels but paid to that. The competition for a place in the Champions League has never been fiercer. Although a look at the Premier League table at the end of last season makes for some interesting reading. And it may not be quite the fluky one off many have perceived it to be.
A mere six points separated the third placed Arsenal from the sixth placed Chelsea at the end of last season. Whilst many believe Chelsea had something of a one-off nightmare of a term, some have labeled Newcastle United’s effort of fifth placed as a similar freak event.
But those expecting there to be some kind of swift change back to the traditional days of the ‘big four’ could be sorely mistaken.
Last season threw up quite the interesting statistic. Arsenal, the team who finished third in the Premier League, lost over a quarter of their games last season. Think about that for a moment. The team deemed to be the third best in the land, behind only the two Manchester clubs who tied on 89 points, were able to loose 10 games out of their 38.
This isn’t a veiled dig at the Gunners. But the playing field of the Barclays Premier League is in some ways, closer than it ever has been. Yes, there was something of a chastising gap between second and third, almost to the tune of 20 points. But beneath that, there wasn’t really much in between the teams.
Because whilst you can argue that Arsenal and Spurs had more quality in their ranks than Newcastle United, it was consistency that the Magpies had which proved as big a commodity as anything. Even then, palming off the likes of Cabaye, Cisse and Ba et al as inferior is doing them more than a touch of disservice- both North London teams could have done with a few of Alan Pardew’s men during the course of the season.
But what it shows is that nothing is impossible. We have moved out of this era of domination where reputations stand before reality. Despite the managerial fragility at Stamford Bridge, you would have been hard pushed to float the notion that a team with such a galaxy of stars could finish sixth. But they did.
Third place is up for grabs in the Premier League. If either Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham can find a little consistency and maybe if Newcastle United can dig up another gem of a signing, then any could push on in the league next year. And that’s what makes it so exciting.
It’s difficult to tell what last season suggests about the strength of the Premier League as a whole. You can argue that the improvement in teams such as Newcastle United, and in the longer term Tottenham Hotspur, signify a league which has collectively grown stronger.
But the aforementioned gap between the top two and the chasing pack most definitely wasn’t a fluke. If anyone is looking to make the step-up next season, they’re going to have to seriously raise their game. The second wave of investment at Stamford Bridge has left many feeling a strong hunch for Roberto Di Matteo’s men next season. But as Abramovich overloads on young attacking talent, the Italian is now under something he’s previously evaded during his Chelsea tenure- and that’s pressure.
Spurs and Arsenal both have the capacity to put some daylight between each other. Even if they loose the keep the likes of Luka Modric and Robin van Persie, it’s not going to be enough to make the difference. Solidity and defensive organization, especially away from home, is what both North London clubs need to acquire for next season. If either can start turning losses into draws and draws into wins from last season’s results list, who knows how far they can go. It doesn’t seem like much, but if they can just eek out a bit more steel from their defenses, then the rewards could be richer than they could possibly imagine.
Although ifs, buts and maybes are the sort of words that will always season these pre-season analyses. Any of the four teams who finished beneath the two Manchester clubs will believe that they can make a charge for third next season and if they don’t, then they must start believing it. The Premier League is a tough nut to crack, but Champions League qualification isn’t quite the gauntlet that maybe it once was.
How do you see the battle for Champions League football playing out? Will the status quo remain, will run of them drop out the running or maybe even make a title tilt? Tell me how you see it on Twitter, follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me your views.