What a week this has been in the world of football! An attempt by a dozen of the richest clubs in the world to distract everyone from UEFA’s announcement of the reformation of the Champions League and the end of season run-ins spectacularly failed when a combination of factors led by fan power brought the concept to a halt just 48 hours after the surprise announcement last Sunday afternoon. Of course not solely fan power, but the announcement was universally condemned by the players, the managers, the media, the broadcasters, royalty, UEFA, FIFA, the whole of the rest of football, and even the Government led by Boris Johnson who were not slow to recognise a popular bandwagon worth jumping upon.
I say brought to a halt, but at the time of writing only nine of the dirty dozen have announced their non-participation with, I believe, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus still in with a chance of becoming the ESL champions, although the format of the competition between the three of them has yet to be confirmed! The Real Madrid supremo Perez appears (amazingly) to still be clinging on to his dream.
The concept of a competition that lacks promotion and relegation is very akin to the American sporting ideal, and it is no coincidence that the billionaire owners of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United in particular were so keen on the idea. What with Perez complaining about the length of a game of football needing shortening being added to the US influence then I wonder how long before we would have had matches consisting of four quarters, timeouts, and stoppages for advertising breaks in the middle of games? Perez suggested that 16-24 year olds are not interested in football. I wonder how much of that theory could be attributed to being priced out of watching games both live at the stadium and via subscription channels where Sky, BT Sport and Amazon all have a share of the games on offer. I’m sure that many of that age range would love to be in the stadiums following their teams but are priced out of doing so.
The combined wealth of the six rebel English club owners is estimated to be around 50 billion pounds. Yes, that is £50,000,000,000 – no wonder they needed a vehicle to extend their fortunes! Amazingly they didn’t even think to consult anyone else who might have an interest, with non-disclosure of the plans to anyone, except a select one or two within their clubs. The whole episode leaves a sour taste, and one whereby I cannot see how they can regain any trust, despite their grovelling apologies which began to emerge on Wednesday.
It gets you thinking about the ownership of clubs by these wealthy foreign investors who have no interest in the history of the game in this country or anything other than making money on the back of their ownership. They are now the most unpopular club owners in the country. Of course it would be a popular move if clubs were owned by wealthy British businessmen instead, thereby improving the popularity of those at the helm. Except West Ham and Newcastle for example are currently owned by wealthy British businessmen and they are generally disliked by their fans too!
When the news broke last Sunday, somebody was quick to construct a league table that disregarded all the games played by the “rebel six” this season. With our “flat-track bullying record” in this campaign it was no surprise to see West Ham at the top with a nine point lead and games in hand, with the revised title virtually won already. Perhaps a new trophy will be awarded this season which ignores the “six” and we will be the inaugural champions? We could add that to other potential competitions that we might win this season. For example, the Claret and Blue Cup decided by the closed shop of games played by those clubs whose primary colours are claret and blue, the London League contested solely by those teams based in the capital, and the “Set Piece Shield” awarded to teams scoring the most goals from set pieces (excluding penalty kicks). I’m sure you could think of others.
A place within the top four is within our grasp, and is still in our own hands with six games to go, provided we beat Chelsea. Defeat in this game would mean an uphill, but not insurmountable, battle to achieve a top four finish, but a draw would not be the worst result. There will still be five games to go for us after this one, and a lot of football to be played.
Shall we have a look at the final few games for the teams involved to see who is likely to make the top four? I’ll exclude Manchester City who are definitely there, and Manchester United who (barring a complete collapse) should be there. That leaves a permutation of two from (probably) six who have a realistic chance of finishing immediately behind the Manchester clubs.
Leicester (59 points, Goal Difference 21, 6 games to go) – Palace, Southampton, Newcastle, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham
Chelsea (55 points, Goal Difference 19, 6 games to go) – West Ham, Fulham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester, Villa
West Ham (55 points, Goal Difference 11, 6 games to go) – Chelsea, Burnley, Everton, Brighton, West Brom, Southampton
Liverpool (53 points, Goal Difference 16, 6 games to go) – Newcastle, Manchester United, Southampton, West Brom, Burnley, Palace
Tottenham (53 points, Goal Difference 18, 5 games to go) – Sheffield United, Leeds, Wolves, Villa, Leicester
Everton (52 points, Goal Difference 4, 6 games to go) –Villa (twice!), West Ham, Sheffield United, Wolves, Manchester City
Of course in addition to the remaining league fixtures there are the added distractions for the teams themselves plus their opponents. Chelsea and Leicester will meet in the FA Cup Final, as well as in one of the remaining league games, Chelsea and Manchester City are still in the Champions League and face two semi-finals (and, of course, possibly a final), Tottenham face Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final tomorrow, and both Arsenal and Manchester United are still in the Europa League at the semi-final stage. These distractions could significantly influence the results of teams still battling for a place in the top four as well as teams that they will face who may “rest” players and possibly weaken their sides as a result.
Leicester are in pole position to finish third with points in the bag and the best goal difference, but based on league positions, their final three fixtures are tough and will coincide with their FA Cup Final involvement. Any let up in their next three games could let in others. Based purely on league positions of opponents, both West Ham and Liverpool would appear to have easier run-ins plus a lack of distractions. But it is never that simple is it?
Failure to pick up anything in the North-East last weekend, plus the loss of Dawson for this game to add to the key injuries to Rice and Antonio, and possibly Cresswell and Masuaku makes our task that much harder, but we are still in the running. Other recent results have been mixed for our competitors, but many have not gone our way. This is therefore a real “six-pointer” and if either team picks up three points then the losers will still have a lot to do. But with so much football still to be played nothing can be taken for granted until the final kick of the season.
And in this season especially, the battle for places in the top four is perhaps the most exciting element as the Premier League is drawing to a close. It is often the relegation scrap that maintains the interest until the end, but, although the places in the bottom three are not yet decided, the current three clubs at the foot have been there for some time and are very firm favourites for the drop.
Of course if the “ESL” was in existence then the battle for a top four position would be irrelevant as the places in the following season’s competition would be guaranteed. Already we have yet another reason why the “ESL” was such a terrible idea! But UEFA have released their plans for a reform of the Champions League set for the 2024-25 season, and this has a number of controversial ideas too, such as the raising of the number of teams to 36, the revised format, and the issue of club co-efficients to allocate some places for teams in the competition. But that is still some way off, and infinitely better than the “ESL”!
What will happen this evening? With the game poised at 2-2 will Yarmolenko make a belated return to the team as a substitute and score a late goal to win the game from a quick counter attack? It would be good wouldn’t it? What are the chances?