As we head into the last games of the season, beyond the glamour battle between Manchester United and Chelsea at the top, there is surprisingly little else being contested. Hull, Burnley and Portsmouth are going down. Chelsea, ManU, Arsenal and Tottenham are going to the Champions League. Man City, Villa and Liverpool are going to the UEFA Cup. None of Sunday’s results will change any of that.
The only serious issue in doubt, other than whether Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford host the big celebration, is whether Spurs can nose out Arsenal into third place. This is not a trivial matter. The team that finishes third gets an automatic berth into the group stages of the Champions League. The team that finished fourth has to play a home and away contest against some other team to qualify. This past year Arsenal, which finished fourth in 2008/09, wound up drawn against Celtic – not an easy task.
Currently, Arsenal has a two point lead over Spurs and an overwhelming lead in goal difference, so the only way that Spurs can hurdle Arsenal into third is if Spurs beat Burnley away and Arsenal lose to Fulham at home. Both of these will be very intriguing, impactful games (much more than the Man City/Wolves irrelevancy that ESPN will broadcast), but there is an open question about what Burnley and Fulham have to play for.
For the already relegated Burnley, the only thing at stake is pride. They are playing their last game in the Premiership at home before fans who saw the team collapse over the past five months. Since Christmas, Burnley has only collected eight points out of a possible 57 and moved themselves from the middle of the table to a position of finishing last if you ignore Portsmouth’s mandated deduction for going into administration. Nothing that happens on Sunday will change their fate, but a good show against Spurs could help restore a touch of pride.
On the other hand, Fulham may very well treat their game Sunday as an annoyance they need to endure before they play in the UEFA Cup final on Wednesday. The difference between winning or losing on Sunday could spell the difference between finishing in 12th or 13th place – a trivial pile of nothingness. On the other hand, a victory on Wednesday would add the most important piece of silverware ever to grace the relatively barren Fulham trophy cabinet. Fulham has every incentive to rest all their important players and avoid injuries on Sunday, and if that means giving Arsenal a stroll, so be it.
Will English fans and pundits come down on Fulham if they send their B team, or something close to it, out on the Emirates pitch Sunday? Perhaps, but Fulham should have nothing for which to apologize. Fulham is not a large, deep team, and they are not built to play two games a week like they have for the past month. Between their UEFA odyssey and their Premiership schedule, Fulham has played more games this season than in any season in their history, and they will need all their best players in their best condition to overcome Atletico Madrid in Hamburg next week. If that means playing Arsenal with a lesser team, it will be hard to begrudge them their sense or priorities.
For the faltering Arsenal, if they cannot get a point off a Fulham team that will be playing with an eye on Wednesday’s game, they do not deserve the automatic spot in the UEFA group play. Arsenal have been devastated by injuries this season, but having gotten just one point out of their possible 12 over the past month, they have to prove they are worthy of their position.
Whatever the result, whether they are in third or fourth Sunday evening, the fans at White Hart Lane will be in a mood to celebrate. The fans at the Emirates will probably be happy to see the back of this season and look forward to seeing an upgraded version of Arsenal come back in August.