The race for fifth place is hotting up. It’s not exactly the most glamorous race in the Premier League, and even the relegation battle is usually more exciting than watching the also-rans squabble over scraps.
In fact, so tight is this race that it almost looks like it’s a race in the opposite direction – one away from the (dreaded?) Europa League spots.
Liverpool and Spurs sit on 54 points from their 31 games up to now, and Southampton on 53. So Liverpool and Spurs are seven points off the Champions League places, and Saints a further point behind. That was the real goal for these teams.
Liverpool and Spurs started the season as genuine top four contenders, Southampton were probably just happy to stay out of a relegation battle. But their form at the start of the season saw them in a position where Champions League was a genuine ambition until very recently.
The dream has gone for each of these clubs, but they still say they are playing for fifth and sixth, and European qualification.
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Yet probably only Southampton really want it. The Europa League is a graveyard of good teams. Teams who have played well the previous season to finish in a European spot or win a cup and then the Thursday-Saturday turnaround or the travel to slightly further-afield places ruins their next season. Spurs have been trying to deal with this for years, and haven’t finished in the top four since 2010, Everton have struggled with both this season, while Newcastle and Liverpool have done in previous seasons, too.
Last season, and without Europe to deal with, Liverpool went on a run from the middle of the season that almost won them the title, Manchester United have done something vaguely similar this year, and maybe no European football has helped them out too.
This time Liverpool have been targeting fourth place, and only being a point ahead of Southampton means that they may miss out on Europe altogether. That may not be such a bad thing from a Liverpool perspective, nor would it be from Spurs’ perspective.
Both of these teams may now be hoping for a stuttering end to the campaign and a fresh start in August.
Southampton, meanwhile, would probably see the Europa League as a stepping stone to bigger things, a sign of the progress being made by the club. But surely next season would be much much tougher were they to finish in a qualifying spot. It’s probably a burden Saints are happy to bear, however.
The recent form of these three teams is perhaps cause for their concern, and at the weekend they were only able to gain a single point between them. A miserly return for clubs so close to the top of the table, and probably evidence of why they’re fighting only for the Europa League places. Perhaps neither are truly interesting in competing in the Europe League next season?
Yet if that’s the case, only one team – the one finishing seventh – would be happy come the final whistle of the final game, and if Liverpool manage to win the FA Cup, then perhaps all three will be England’s representatives in the second tier of European football next season.
Perhaps it just doesn’t matter what any of these clubs do – they could be doomed to spending Thursday nights on ITV4 no matter how bad their league form is.