As each Premier League season unfolds, the league table begins to fashion specific mini-competitions within itself, all of them aiming to achieve certain goals.
At the top there is the obvious and most talked about race for the title, at the bottom the drama-filled relegation action, and towards the middle the hunt for a shot at Thursday night, European glory.
Though for my money the three races already mentioned can’t compare – at least this season – to what is bound to be a dogfight for the final Champions League spot.
Assuming Chelsea win their game in hand, and continue the form they have shown of late under Rafael Benitez (excluding their match against QPR, of course), it would seem like they would be the ones to hold onto third place, sitting comfortable in the trequartista-like chasm between the Manchester clubs and the rest of the league.
That leaves fourth place, which at this point has three clear contestants: the North London duo of Arsenal and Tottenham, and David Moyes’s Everton outfit. Though it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see West Brom continue to hang around the area, or for Liverpool’s recent clinical performances to become increasingly frequent as the year progresses and therefore keep them in the race as well.
But when it comes to the first three clubs, each of them has a legitimate shot at ultimately occupying the position come the evening of May 19th. Both London clubs have of course experienced Champions League football, with Arsenal being in Europe’s top club competition for thirteen years running and Spurs making their run to the last eight in 2011.
Finally, there’s Everton, the team who finally put together a first half of campaign that resembled the many fantastic run-ins they’ve had over the years, and a team whose qualification would come as the biggest shock.
Considering their pedigree, Everton may be the dark horses, but if they were to be celebrating qualification at the end of the season, the competition would mean more to their club than to the two others.
While many Arsenal fans have consistently talked of crisis, it is not as if all is lost at the Emirates, with the club’s finances being well taken care of as they attempt to pay off their move to Islington. Along with that, the Gunners still have Arsene Wenger, a manager who has worked wonders with a smaller budget than his main rivals. A season out of the Champions League might seem devastating to Arsenal fans, but it’s the reality of an even more competitive league.
Then there’s Spurs, who believe they should’ve had a shot in Europe’s top tier once again this season, only to be excluded by questionable UEFA rule. Tottenham are still a big club, and their willingness to spend money on players coupled with their growth under Andre Villas-Boas shows that their presence in the top quarter of the table is here to stay.
So of the trio, it is Everton who crave the Champions League even more than the sweets of their famous toffee lady. The club is the weakest entrants when it comes to money, a problem that has been well documented during David Moyes’s reign at Goodison Park. But despite a lack of a transfer “war chest”, the Scotsman has become a bargain buyer and has a keen eye for talent, profiting £17 million on Joleon Lescott, £8 million on Mikel Arteta and £12 million on Jack Rodwell. Not only that, but he has made to an average finish of about sixth over the last six seasons. Moyes ultimate triumph was getting Everton to fourth place back in 2005 after having escaped relegation by one league position the season before. But their goal of Champions League football failed at the first hurdle after losing their third qualifying-round tie to eventual semi-finalist Villarreal.
But now Moyes faces a situation that makes this season’s shot at the European big time even more critical than that of eight years ago. Ever since his side’s exhilarating start to the season, rumors have consistently appeared linking some of his key players to lucrative moves to bigger Premier League opponents. The two players mentioned the most – Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini – both represent invaluable components of the Everton team, and even the loss of one of them would result in a heavy blow to the team’s overall quality.
With clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs frequently attempting to turn the heads of both players, Moyes knows the only way to keep his prized assets will be to secure Champions League football. It is unlikely that either would depart in January, so the real concern for Everton fans will be how both players view the club’s progress at the end of the season.
A spot in the glamorous Champions League would help to cushion some of the financial woes that have held Everton back when it comes to having the resources to buy the players of the same quality as those being bought by the top three.
Now, of course, Everton could achieve their goal of finishing fourth and fall in qualifying again, but Moyes believes that his current squad is much higher in quality than his 2005 vintage, and that they would avoid having to meet such a prestigious foe in the early round.
Simply put, if Everton don’t make it into the top four this season, they might have lost their chance to do so for the foreseeable future. With Arsenal and Tottenham both sure to be consistently vying for a place at Europe’s top table, and Liverpool building under Brendan Rodgers, further failures for the Toffees could see them left in the dust.