The UEFA Champions League to many remains the most important trophy in European club football. Qualifying for such a famous, illustrious European competition gives teams and fans alike to rate themselves as one of the best thirty-two teams in European Football and a real footprint in the world of European Football. In a competition which sees the most elite sides in European Football, year on year, battle it out to see who the ultimate King of Europe is, it may seem somewhat strange there has not been a back to back winner since the competition was reformed. Winners often vary, coming from various countries ranging from Spain to Portugal and from Germany to Italy in recent years. And in regards to the view of the Champions League in England, if you’re unable to fully challenge at the top, the expectancy then turns to qualifying for the Champions League in either third or fourth place. Missing out on Champions League football often has significant consequences not just financially off the pitch but also on the pitch too with managers sometimes losing their jobs and players brought in or even sold with the hope of being much stronger at the next time of asking the competition, whenever that may be. Unavoidably, finishing fourth therefore means a lot in modern football. But as Arsene Wenger once suggested, should finishing fourth be considered ‘like winning a trophy’?
The case with the Merseyside outfit Liverpool shows how important Europe’s elite competition is and the difficulties a club can face if they’re absent from the competition for far too long. In recent years the title race and struggle for survival, has proven not to be the only thing which managers, pundits and fans look forward to. Instead the race to see who will make the cut and make it into the top four has become a phenomenon in its own right. And as proven by Michael Owen’s failed attempts to correctly predict the top four in the 2013/14 season, it’s often difficult when taking everything into account exactly who has what it takes to make it into the Champions League spots.
This time round, the race to finish in the top four will most certainly go down to the wire, except differently to previous years, could there be a potential banana skin in the pipeline? This season’s surprise contenders Southampton have shown they’re capable of cutting it at the top for as long as they have, convincing a lot of doubters in the process with consistency on the pitch and stability off the pitch. However whether or not they are genuine contenders for finishing fourth, or even third in the league will only become clear as the latter end of the season progresses.
Meanwhile a rejuvenated Manchester United under the leadership of Louis Van Gaal after a disappointing spell under David Moyes last season, show real signs of promise, yet with the amount of money spent exceeding peoples expectations, it’s therefore unsurprising a team with such quality on paper are in touching distance of qualifying again for the Champions League. Some already believe it to be a real disappointment that a team with the likes of Radamel Falcao, Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria cannot contest for the league title, therefore challenging for the Champions League in either third or fourth place should be a given. But despite Van Gaal’s defiance in the face of criticism, Manchester United look a much more settled side under his leadership despite the misfortune they have had with injuries, and it’s fair to say that it will be a massive blow to both the team and the fans should they fail to finish in the top four.
Arsenal under Arsene Wenger’s reign have never finished outside the top four – yes, even the season they had the prolific pairing of Maroanne Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner leading the line and an aging William Gallas and Mikael Sylvestre in the heart of their defence. Wenger unquestionably has both the experience and expertise to finish in the top four no matter what the odds are. And Arsenal fans are no strangers to nail biting final days over the years where their fate rests solely on the results that day but with an electric Alexis Sanchez and signs that German Mesut Ozil is returning back to the form he displayed at Real Madrid, the odds continue to be in Arsene Wenger’s favour to do what he has always done and see his side once again qualify for the Champions League.
Now another challenging London side, their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur hailing from White Hart Lane, where in recent times have seen the likes of Gareth Bale and much more recently, the prolific Harry Kane really come into their own and assert themselves as two of the hottest prospects in World Football in 2015. Harry Kane who some have suggested he may have started his career leaning to red side of North London has been a key figure for Spurs and has put them well and truly back in the race to finish in the top four. But for how long Harry Kane can continue to produce such incredible performances and word-class goals is another issue. The last time Tottenham Hotspur finished in fourth place, Chelsea finished in sixth, yet won the champions league and as defending champions automatically disqualified Spurs from qualifying. But with the new rule permitting the winner of the Europa League to qualify for the Champions League – who knows? Spurs may have a chance of sneaking into the biggest European club football competition through the back door if they can go on to win the competition.
In regards to other contenders for Champions League qualification, Liverpool still have an outside chance to finish in the top four. But although they will not give up and will continue to push a top four finish right until the very end, they will need the misfiring Mario Balotelli to show signs of his former super self, alongside Daniel Sturridge to hit the ground running in among the goals and creating a successful partnership with Raheem Sterling, which would inevitably help their cause. It’s only when you take away someone as pivotal as Luis Suarez when you recognise his impact and it’s no surprise why FC Barcelona came knocking despite his antics during the 2014 World Cup. His impact really has become more and more obvious throughout the season, considering that at this time last season a spot in the Champions League was all but guaranteed. Personally, I feel it will take a mixture of a return to form and with any luck, teams around Liverpool slipping up should they stand a chance of qualifying for the Champions League for a second consecutive year.
The likes of Swansea City, Southampton and West Ham also remain in contention. In regards to the latter, West Ham have experienced a season they will not forget in a while, in comparison to their showings last season with several of their performances proving a joy to watch both for the neutral and for fans of English Premier League football. There is no doubt that manager ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce has transformed the team from last season, converting West Ham United from the abysmal side they were at time last season to worthy opponents that could cause an upset. Whether Allardyce can continue to work his magic and lead West Ham to a fourth place finish may be one job too many for a side who look to be over-achieving already, but who knows what the future will bring? With a new stadium on the way and a settled squad on the pitch, it could be argued Champions League qualification is more a long term aim and would therefore be unlikely to expect this season – but who knows?
All in all, this season continues to spring several surprises and will no doubt reach an epic conclusion, and whoever eventually finishes in the top four will more than likely deserve it. Every point and goal will become both more important and incredibly decisive in whatever the outcome may be.
Article written by: @onengs_dok