The race for the top four in the English Premier League has been more of a steady amble than a mad dash this spring. With Chelsea crowned champions and Tottenham secure in second place, two spots in next year's Champions League remain on the line among four teams. And while there has been much jockeying for position for those two spots over the past month, the race was destined to come down to the last day of the season.
Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal will vie for the third and fourth spots in the Premier League table on Sunday, the final matchday of the campaign. Two will qualify for the Champions League, while one will be left picking up the pieces of what can only be classified as an unsuccessful season by any of these clubs' lofty standards.
There are still many scenarios the could play out. But to keep things simple, let's just look at what would need to happen for each team to fail to qualify for the top four.
- Manchester City will miss out with a loss plus a Liverpool win, plus and Arsenal win that makes up the goal differential on City
- Liverpool misses out with a draw or loss plus an Arsenal win that makes up the goal differential on Liverpool
- Arsenal misses out with a loss, or a Manchester City draw, plus a Liverpool win
As you can see, Manchester City -- which currently sits in third on 75 points -- has the easiest path into the top four. Or rather the easiest path to stay there. A draw would guarantee fourth place, while a win would guarantee third. And while no one aside from these three clubs will be playing for anything except bragging right this Sunday, the Sky Blues were fairly fortunate with their final opponent of the year.
City plays at Watford, a club that just sacked their manager, Walter Mazzarri, this week. He wasn't a manager who inspired much love from fans or players, so a final rousing performance in his sendoff doesn't seem to be in the cards, even in front of a home crowd at Vicarage Road with a chance to spoil City's season. The Sky Blues won the first meeting 2-0 in December, and a similar scoreline shouldn't be difficult to attain again.
Regardless of which spot they finish in, this season can only be seen as a disappointment for City. Pep Guardiola was brought in to win trophies, specifically the Champions League, not merely finish in the top four. But if City somehow fell out of the top four, taking that Champions League goal off the table for next season, this EPL campaign will have dropped from disappointment to disaster.
Liverpool's situation is more dire. Finishing in the top four would be a huge step forward for Jurgen Klopp in his first full season, and Champions League qualification would once again set the Merseyside club up to sign players who want to play in the game's biggest club tournament, as well as some extra funds to sign them. Finishing out of the top four would be seen as a monumental collapse, as it was only March when Liverpool seemed guaranteed to make the top four without much of a challenge.
In fourth place with 73 points, the Reds need a win over Middlesbrough, who were recently relegated, to stay. That's about as good a matchup as an EPL club in need of a win could ask for. But it could still prove to be a considerable challenge for a few reasons.
First, draw will keep Liverpool in the top four as long as Arsenal loses, but that's a big risk. Especially when you consider Liverpool (10) and Middlesbrough (13) are two of the most draw-happy clubs in the league. You should expect the Reds to come out and fight tooth and nail for the full three points.
Second, Liverpool's had a nasty habit of losing to much weaker side this season, perhaps the biggest reason why they're fighting for the top four instead of the title. Despite wins or draws over most of the league's power side, the Reds have lost to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, and recently-relegated Hull this year. Although they stand head and shoulders above their opponent, a loss to Boro would not be out of character.
Third, Boro may have something to prove yet. Aside from a few wins over other teams at the bottom of the table, Boro has done nothing of note this season. With the away fans likely to be in full voice to watch their squad in one final Premier League match, the team will want to send them off with something of note, like knocking Liverpool out of the top four. The odds are against Boro, and its record would indicate it'll be close to impossible, but with nothing to lose and pride on the line, anything could happen.
That leaves us with Arsenal, a club that has finished in the top four every single season of Arsene Wenger's 20-year reign. This is uncharted territory for the Gunners. Although they've had some close calls before, never has it been from the outside of the top four looking in, as the team most likely to miss out on a Champions League bid. And earlier in the spring, it seemed they wouldn't even be in a position to attempt a late smash and grab. But with seven wins in their past eight matches, including four in a row, the Gunners have gotten back into the fight for a top four spot many fans will believe is rightfully theirs.
In fifth place with 72 points, Arsenal needs a win and some help to stay in the group of four. There are scenarios in which a draw could still get the club through, but it'd need a disastrous performance from Liverpool as well to make that count. Arsenal's is the most difficult path of these three teams, but in some ways it's also the simplest. Score goals and win. Pretty much anything less won't cut it.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, it also has the toughest opponent of these three teams: Everton. Considering the Toffees are Liverpool's crosstown rivals, and their place in the table won't change regardless of the result, there has been speculation that Everton will field a weak squad in the hopes of derailing the Reds' season. This strikes me as more of a fan's fantasy than anything.
Everton is a club full of highly capable soccer players who want to prove they're among the league's elite. Ending the season with a win over Arsenal would send a clear message that they intend to be in the hunt for the top four themselves next season. But that shouldn't be mistaken for something nearly as motivating as the top four place at stake for Arsenal. The Toffees won't take a dive, but they won't be playing with as much gusto as Arsenal either. Between the form Arsenal is in and what they still have to play for, the Gunners are solid favorites.
There is one more scenario that could play out, and it's a doozy.
If Arsenal draws 1-1 with Everton and Liverpool loses 2-0 to Middlesbrough, the Gunners and Reds would be tied on points, goal differential, goals scored and goals allowed -- all the tiebreakers to determine who would take the fourth spot. With no other way to decide it, a one-match playoff between Liverpool and Arsenal would determine who gets the final Champions League bid from the Premier League. And I can't think of a better way to end the season than with one more leg in the race for fourth.
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Cy Brown writes about soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.