With the international break now upon us, we have a moment to look at the state of play in the world's most important footballing competition: the Premier League's Race for the Top Four. Legends will be made, reputations will be trashed, and money will slosh around the place.
Unusually for the Premier League, there are six teams that will have started the season targeting a top-four finish, and accordingly there will be two that will end the season disappointed. We've taken a look at all six, and tried to work out what, if anything, missing out on the Champions League might mean for their futures.
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Never mind the top four. For Chelsea to blow the title from here would be one of the most spectacular and ludicrous collapses in the history of football, and Roman Abramovich would be morally obliged to shutter the club and start again in non-league. But it isn't going to happen.
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On a practical level, Tottenham, two points clear in second place, are perhaps the side best equipped to end up in the Europa League. This is because Tottenham's Champions League adventures are occasional rather than regular, and so we can probably assume that their business plans, shopping budgets, sponsorship deals, and all that other romantic stuff isn't built around regularly hearing "THE CHAAAAAMPIOOOOOONS (bom bom bom bom bom BOM-BOM)."
However, a late collapse would be symbolically disastrous, because along with Manchester City, Spurs have a certain ingrained farcical quality. In their case, the inherent curse of Spursiness. It's not a constant: at times this season, Spurs have looked genuinely brilliant, and they’re the only team in England to have beaten Chelsea since Antonio Conte realized that three defenders was better than two, particularly where one of the two is John Terry.
But if they were to slump out of the top four, it would pile up with last season's climax — they almost managed to manufacture a two-horse title race, then came third — and this season's European campaign to suggest that here is a team capable of occasional brilliance, but with an unhappy habit of blowing the crucial moments. A team fundamentally unsuited to campaigns, however well they can play in individual games. And a team that is, despite the joyous football of Dele Alli and Harry Kane and the promise of Mauricio Pochettino, exceedingly and appropriately Spursy.
3. Manchester City
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For Spursiness, read Cityitis. As with the north Londoners, a meander down the table at this point would, when taken with their European exit, feel very on brand. Whether it would have any more serious impact beyond being funny is an interesting question.
The general utility of finishing in the top four isn't just the Champions League football and the money that comes with it. It's the ability to attract the best players, and so ensure that progress is always being made. A virtuous circle of status and reward that in theory returns glory and giant silver vases, but at worst means that Champions League football one season begets Champions League football the next.
The implication is that if a club misses out on the Champions League, then all the world's best players will look at them with disdain and contempt. Or at least ask for more money. And we know that City have plenty of rebuilding to do this summer. There's nearly an entire defense needed, along with half a midfield, and the Europa League won't be doing much of the heavy lifting.
So it's just as well they've got the Pep Guardiola Project and the money to back it up. They'll be fine regardless.
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As a proud and righteous warrior against English football's obsession with the transfer market, Jürgen Klopp presumably has little time for the get into the Champions League to get the best players line of thinking. He's here for the project, and his Liverpool side, once he's finished, will consist entirely of youngsters molded by progressive coaching into gegenpressing soldiers. His inevitable victory will be both literal and moral.
Still, missing out on the top four this season might not be a promising sign. Like Chelsea, Liverpool have had the benefit of no European football this season; unlike Chelsea, they haven't been able to alchemize this extra training time into consistent brilliance. And since they're likely to end up with European football of some kind next season, re-cluttering the calendar, it might as well be the one that has more money and prestige. It's a fun competition. And if they did want to pick up a player or two, it couldn't hurt.
Liverpool missing out would also be kind of peculiar. Last weekend's draw against City completed Liverpool's set of fixtures against the rest of the top six, and means that they've gone the whole season undefeated against their other Champions League pretenders. Finishing behind at least four of them would truly demonstrate that league football, despite the television scheduling, isn't about competing in the big games. It's about charging through the smaller ones.
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For United, missing out on Champions League football for the second season in a row would raise all sorts of intriguingly awkward questions. That, after all, was one of the reasons Louis van Gaal was asked to clear his desk. There is also reportedly a clause in their deal with Adidas that, in the event of a second season outside the elite, cuts the amount of money United receive from “cosmically ridiculous” to just plain old “ridiculous.”
United, being a money-fueled monstrosity with a lopsided squad, will be doing some serious shopping come the summer. But while their name and their wage budget remain as potent as ever, this would be a second season outside the Champions League. It would also be another campaign in which José Mourinho has looked distinctly mortal. Both those things look, from some angles, like a pattern.
In any case, watching them fail to score against the Premier League's mid- and lower-table, it's hard to put together any kind of case that will get into the top four. Yet the incompetence of Arsenal means that United's long, passionate affair with sixth place is over. They have two games in hand and only a four-point gap to Liverpool in fourth, and there's the wild-card option of the Europa League. Maybe everybody gets to play in the Champions League …
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… well, almost everybody. The arrival of the international break means March will end with Arsenal's Victories losing 2-1 to Arsenal's Protest Planes. They've been dumped out of the Champions League in brutal fashion, slipped below a deeply ordinary United side in the league, and while they did manage a 5-0 win, that came against non-league Lincoln City.
This might be down to Arsène Wenger's fundamental obsolescence, and so require his departure; alternatively, it might just be that Arsenal can cope just fine with three superior teams and struggle when presented with four. But Wenger's case isn't helped by the fact that in his late period, he's placed so much emphasis on regular Champions League qualification as an achievement — a trophy! — in itself. No matter how embarrassingly they depart the competition, they're back again next year.
As such, Arsenal and Champions League qualification are fundamentally intertwined, to the point that the thought of the club missing out is vaguely unsettling. It's almost an existential question: at the moment their fifth-place finish is confirmed, the sun will dim and the earth will shake. The mural of Arsenal's legends that wraps the Emirates will rip from top to bottom. Most unlikely of all, Ivan Gazidis will make a statement:
And then Arsène Wenger will sign his new contract.