Look beyond the games at the top of the table this midweek – the top six clash between Manchester United and Tottenham at Wembley – or indeed those at the bottom – where Southampton and Brighton or West Ham and Crystal Palace play out relegation six pointers.
This midweek, one of the league’s most important games takes place smack bang in the middle.
One of the symptoms of the top six consolidation of power in the Premier League last season was a distinction between the best and the rest, with the table split neatly in two.
This season, the same thing has happened in parts, but instead of a bottom 14 and a top six, there is actually something of a middle appearing. That’s why Leicester’s trip to Everton is actually one of the more important games you’ll see over the next few months.
It’s not just a battle for supremacy over midtable, though. The League Cup will be won by a side in the top six – Arsenal or Manchester City. So if the FA Cup is, too – which is very likely – seventh place won’t just be the ‘best of the rest’ position, but it will also be a European spot.
With Everton out of the FA Cup, that potentially final European spot should be the prize at this point. And for Leicester City, it should be the same: they are still in the cup, but winning that would simply hand them the same prize.
When we get to this stage of the season, the focus is inevitably rooted on the Champions League and title races, because they are usually where the interest is. As the midtable sides put distance between themselves and the relegation battle below, and as those above are simply too far ahead, the best that Everton, Leicester and Burnley can do is play for seventh place and hope it’s good enough for a European spot at the end of the season.
But you wonder if that forward-looking idea is on the minds of either manager.
For Leicester, perhaps Claude Puel is genuinely looking to cup success this season. He’d be a fool not to, in a way: Leicester only need six points to get to the magical 40, and we all know that his side have players who know how to win against the odds. But in this new league, where seventh place is basically top spot for non-super clubs, that might well be the best they can hope for.
For Everton, there is simply nothing else to do but attempt to finish exactly where they did last season, and where most onlookers would have put them at the start of the season. They’d be taking a roundabout way of regressing to the mean.
If there’s a game to look out for this midweek, make sure it’s this one. A clash between two teams you wouldn’t instantly jump to this season is one which could become crucial for the landscape for the rest of the season. If Sam Allardyce’s side win, it could set up a shootout for seventh and a battle between two teams on the up for the last meaningful place in the Premier League this season.
It’s that time of the season when most teams are seeing their seasons die in front of their eyes. So we have to take what we can get.
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