Is the English Premier League interesting right now? If you’re looking at the battle for first place, it’s marginally interesting. It’s likely, even with seven matches left for all the teams, that the title will land in Manchester — more likely going to Manchester United for its 20th league title (something they’re already prematurely celebrating in T-shirts), though Manchester City, which has led the table for much of the season, has a reasonable shot at finishing on top. (At least, that’s what ManU haters are counting on.)
But if you’re looking at the next three spots, the league gets a little more interesting — something weirdly put into perspective by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
In late February, Wenger said that “fourth place is a trophy in itself,” which was, at the time, a PR spin on Arsenal’s aspirations toward a fourth-place finish, which seemed a miracle given the start of the 2011-12 campaign. (Remember 17th place in the standings? The 8-2 loss to Manchester United back in August? The realization that Arsenal might not have a midfield anymore?) As you might expect, it’s already parody fodder for those who find themselves not liking Arsenal.
As you can see from the table, or, as we like to call it in ‘Merica, “the standings,” United’s five points up on City (but still down one on goal differential, should City be able to get it to where that’s a factor), Arsenal and Tottenham are tied for third (with Arsenal holding onto a one-goal lead in the goal differential category), with Chelsea currently in position for 5th with a healthy goal differential lead on Newcastle (though they’re currently tied in points). (By the way, that’s Newcastle.)
Somewhat in the mix, but not really: Everton, Liverpool, Sunderland. (Liverpool’s probably headed further down. Stay tuned to the soap opera that is this year’s Carling Cup-winning* Liverpool squad.)
(* Remember: The Carling Cup. No one can take that away from you, Reds!)
Here’s what’s remaining on the schedule for the Top 6:
Man United: 4/8 vs. QPR, 4/11 at Wigan, 4/15 vs. Aston Villa, 4/22 vs. Everton, 4/30 at Man City, 5/6 vs. Swansea, and 5/13 at Sunderland. Obviously, April 30′s a big day. That’s not the easiest slate of final four games, of course, though they’ve got a chance to widen the gap with City before then. Could City win the big match and still lose the title? Cruel Mistress Math says yes.
Man City: 4/8 at Arsenal, 4/11 v. West Brom, 4/14 at Norwich, 4/22 at Wolves, 4/30 vs. Man United, 5/6 at Newcastle, and 5/13 vs. QPR. Aside from ManU and Arsenal, the Newcastle tilt’s the biggest test. On paper, they’d have an easier route to the title, but they start this stretch five points down. To state the obvious, they need to win the upcoming battle of Manchester.
Arsenal: 4/8 vs. Man City, 4/11 at Wolves, 4/16 vs. Wigan, 4/21 vs. Chelsea, 4/28 at Stoke, 5/5 vs. Norwich, and 5/13 at West Brom. Despite this past weekend’s loss to QPR (who suddenly don’t look relegation bound, even though their record says otherwise), Wolves and Wigan on the schedule are positively delightful, and the last three games (Note: hard for Americans like me to call them matches, though I’ll try) are against the doughy middle of the table.
Tottenham: 4/7 at Sunderland, 4/9 vs. Norwich, 4/21 at QPR, 4/29 vs. Blackburn, 5/2 at Bolton, 5/6 at Aston Villa, 5/13 vs. Fulham. It’s a tougher final seven than Arsenal’s got, and the single day’s rest between the Sunderland and Norwich matches seems particularly cruel. (They’ve got an FA Cup match against Chelsea in there as well, of course.)
Chelsea: 4/7 vs. Wigan, 4/9 at Fulham, 4/21 at Arsenal, 4/29 vs. QPR, 5/2 vs. Newcastle, 5/5 at Liverpool, 5/13 vs. Blackburn. The schedule’s got two relegation-bound teams on it but isn’t what you’d call easy. The bad news, beyond what’s lying in front of them here, is that they’ll have Champions League semis matches with Barca interspersed with their final run, but the good news (from an EPL prospects perspective) is that The Greatest Team On Earth will probably dispense of them, so there wouldn’t, you know, be a Champions League final for them to worry about. Though the FA Cup semis might lead to an actual win and an actual commitment to an FA Cup final. Chelsea’s a little busy these days.
Newcastle: 4/6 at Swansea, 4/9 vs. Bolton, 4/21 vs. Stoke, 4/28 at Wigan, 5/2 at Chelsea, 5/6 vs. Man City, 5/13 at Everton. The last three matches are brutal, but the first of those matches might well be the battle for the Europa League spot, and given the Magpies’ path in comparison to the Blues, they could have the upper hand before their early May trip to Stamford Bridge.
So, the lesson for fledgling American soccer fans on Why This All Matters: Of the 20 teams i the EPL any given year, only the top four teams are eligible for the Champions League, which puts Europe’s top club teams in one of the most lively tournaments this side of the World Cup. And, as you’ve probably surmised, there are more than four EPL teams that consider themselves Champions League-worthy. The fifth place team goes to the Europa League, which is what the NIT is to the Champions League’s NCAA. It’s very consolation prize, but it’s better than being 6th, which for all practical purposes, is the top tier of EPL mediocrity.
For English soccer, it’s also an unwilling admission of relative weakness that right now, only one EPL squad (Chelsea, at that) remains in the Champions League’s top four among English sides. The other three in that mix are perennial powers– Barca, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munchen — and it’s not at all surprising they’ve outlasted the rest of the EPL teams, but there’s the whole, you know, we’re the English and we invented soccer-slash-football thing that kind of gets in the way of logic.
So, while “We’re Number Four” doesn’t seem a particularly inspiring chant, it’s an arguably more intriguing prospect than which Manchester side is the most spendyawesome this year. (Though I’m sort of enamored of Balotelli and the mohawk and him being the footballer most likely to make it rain at a strip club, should he ever hypothetically find himself in one of those places, so it’d be great to see things break City’s way.)
(Who am I kidding? It’s United’s to lose.)