Finishing in sixth place in the Premier League guarantees you nothing, those conveted Europa League spots are reserved for the fifth placed finisher and the winners of the FA Cup and the League Cup. However, as I’m sure you all know, if the winners of one of these trophies has already qualified for Europe through the league then their Europa League place goes to the sixth placed team, and this is precisely what has happened for the last six seasons running. There are currently four teams within five points of sixth place, but which of these teams would be best suited for a stint in European competition?
Currently lie: 6th, 33 points
How they’ve got to where they are: Sunderland currently occupy sixth place simply down to the fact that Steve Bruce has made them very hard to beat. They have lost the fewest games of anybody outside of the top four and have conceded fewer goals than any team below them. Sunderland have been playing well all season, but it was their 0-3 away win over Chelsea that made people sit up and take notice. Despite losing two consecutive games over Christmas, Sunderland followed that with two wins and will be hoping to cement their European push with a game against local rivals Newcastle next up in the league.
Why they’d be ok in Europe: Over the last few seasons Sunderland have been a big club in just about every criteria except on-field achievement. However, this season finally seems to be the one where they’ve broken through the glass ceiling from ‘mid table underachievers’ to ‘genuine European contenders’. They have a young, talented squad with a good amount of strength and depth in every position and would be well suited to the demands that a European campaign can have on a season.
Why they wouldn’t: Other than experience, the main problem so far for Sunderland has been goals. Despite, on paper, having four top quality strikers, Sunderland have been lacking in the goals department this season. Their tally of 25 is someway behind the teams around them and this is an area that they would need to address if they were to finish sixth, especially with the in-form Danny Welbeck’s loan spell ending in May.
Currently lie: 7th, 30 points
How they got to where they are: Owen Coyle’s side are a shadow of the Bolton team which we got accustomed to watching under Gary Megson. Bolton now play with a certain confidence and have an attacking edge which has lost them the tag of being a ‘long ball team’. The emergence of the partnership between Johan Elmander and Kevin Davies has been a revelation, and even though the two haven’t been finding the net often in recent weeks they continue to pose a significant threat. Bolton have gone about their business quietly, and aside from impressive wins over Spurs and Newcastle have largely been achieving good results with attracting too much attention.
Why they’d be ok in Europe: A few people may forget, but Bolton enjoyed a spell in the UEFA Cup in the 07/08 season which included an impressive draw away to Bayern Munich and a two legged win over Athletico Madrid. The core of that team are still at the Reebok Stadium and that experience could prove vital. Owen Coyle is looking like a really top manager and seems quite capable of taking of taking big steps forward. He took Burnley from Championship strugglers to the top half of the Premier League, so leading Bolton into Europe should be no problem. The prospect of European football could also convince Gary Cahill to stay at the club amid rumours that Chelsea are considering making an offer.
Why they wouldn’t: It could be argued that Bolton are over-achieving. Bolton lack depth in their squad and are always few key injuries away from a potential disaster. If Bolton do clinch a European spot you would get the feeling that Owen Coyle would need to add some more quality to his squad, something which financial restrictions might not allow him to do.
Currently lie: 8th, 28 points
How they got to where they are: Sheer doggedness. Despite set-backs and some poor results, Newcastle United always seems to bounce back with some big wins and could certainly be given the tag of the ‘Premier League Entertainers’. Their incredible 6-0 win over Aston Villa in Week 2 made people sit up and take notice of the Magpies, and made Andy Carroll a household name. The spirit in the squad has been clear for all to see, just as people were tipping Newcastle for relegation after the sacking of Chris Hughton, new boss Alan Pardew leads them to three wins from his first five games including the 5-0 demolition of West Ham. A 5-1 victory over local rivals Sunderland can’t have done the team much harm either…
Why they’d be ok in Europe: Newcastle have some real quality in their squad. Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan have been star performers this season and if they can hold on to Andy Carroll over January you wouldn’t bet against them clinching sixth spot. The fans at Newcastle would be sure to turn up in numbers should the Toon get into Europe and no team would fancy an away tie at St James’ Park. They’ve already proven that they can hold their own against the best in England and have won away at some tough places so far this season.
Why they wouldn’t: Newcastle’s back line has been leaky at times this season. Bringing in Sol Campbell didn’t work and their record of 31 goals conceded is worse than many of the teams below them. Mike Ashley would be likely to back his new managerial appointment in the transfer market, but to what extent is yet to be seen.
Currently lie: 9th, 28 points
How they got to where they are: I’m not too sure. One of the winners of a tightly fought Premier League, two wins in three have lifted them up to within touching distance of sixth, yet they will still have one eye looking downwards. In fairness to Blackburn, when they’ve played well this season they’ve recorded some very good wins. They’ve acquired a knack of beating teams around them this season, wins over Newcastle, Blackpool, Liverpool and Everton means that Rovers have been able to steal a march on some of their rivals. Unfortunately, all the good they’ve done this season has largely been overshadowed by THAT defeat at Old Trafford.
Why they’d be ok in Europe: Should Blackburn qualify for Europe then it seems that their new owners would be able to finance some big changes to the squad.
Why they wouldn’t: In many ways Blackburn are an average Premier League side and could struggle to attract big names to the club, even with the lure of European football. Their six strikers have 12 goals between them this season and I think that they would struggle to cope with the extra fixtures. In the near future Blackburn could well become a top six/seven team, but this year would be too soon for them and new manager Steve Kean.