Astonishingly, as we entered the penultimate round of matches in this season’s Premier League, there were still five teams with a mathematical chance of joining the two Manchester clubs in the top four at the end of the season, and one of those five was West Ham! Whoever would have believed that we would come this close to qualifying for the Champions League? Of course only three teams had a realistic chance, with the bookmakers’ odds reflecting their chances as follows: Liverpool 1/7, Chelsea 4/9, Leicester 8/11, Tottenham and West Ham both at 250/1.
Prior to yesterday Leicester knew that a win at Chelsea would guarantee a top four finish, as would a draw at Chelsea and a win over Tottenham in Sunday’s final game. Chelsea knew that they had to beat Leicester and then Villa on Sunday to be certain of finishing in the top four. Of course they had the backup of knowing that beating Manchester City in this season’s final would also secure entry into the next Champions League competition. Thanks to their 95th minute winner at West Brom last Sunday, Liverpool became the clear favourites, knowing that if Chelsea failed to beat Leicester, victories over both Burnley and Palace (hardly the most in-form sides) would see them into the top four. As it turned out (in this topsy turvy season) Chelsea reversed the FA Cup Final result by beating Leicester at Stamford Bridge last night.
Tottenham needed to win both of their games and then hope that Chelsea didn’t exceed one point in their final two games and Liverpool didn’t get more than two points in their last two. Although we were level on points with Tottenham, an inferior goal difference meant that we needed Chelsea to lose their final two games, Liverpool to not get more than one point in their last two games, Tottenham to fail to pick up six points from their last two, and for us to win both of ours. Based on our recent form and the permutations needed, this was realistically a much longer shot than 250/1! But I wonder what odds you would have got at the beginning of the season for West Ham to still mathematically have a chance of a top four finish after 36 games had been played?
Of course the Chelsea win finally ruined both Tottenham’s and our own remote chances of a top four finish to set up a potential final day scramble between the three teams who could finally capture the remaining two places. If Liverpool do beat Burnley today then it keeps Leicester really honest in their final game against Tottenham which is good for us in our hopes of finishing above our North London neighbours.
Chelsea (67 points, Goal Difference 23, 1 game to go) – Villa (Sun) – maximum points possible 70.
Leicester (66 points, Goal Difference 20, 1 game to go) – Tottenham (Sun) – maximum points possible 69.
Liverpool (63 points, Goal Difference 21, 2 games to go) – Burnley (today), Palace (Sun) – maximum points possible 69.
West Ham (59 points, Goal Difference 10, 2 games to go) –West Brom (today), Southampton (Sun) – maximum points possible 65.
Tottenham (59 points, Goal Difference 22, 2 games to go) – Villa (today), Leicester (Sun) – maximum points possible 65.
So where will we finish once the season is over on Sunday afternoon? Two defeats in our last two matches could mean that we are overtaken by Everton, Arsenal and possibly even Leeds to finish as low as tenth! Two draws in our final two games would still enable Everton and Arsenal to finish above us if they picked up two wins apiece, and we could finish a disappointing ninth. Winning just one of our final two games would guarantee that we retain our current position of seventh, and winning at least one game plus picking up more points than Tottenham would ensure sixth. To finish fifth would only be possible if Liverpool slip up badly now, and we outpoint Tottenham.
Seventh is therefore very realistic, and my understanding is that this would mean a place in the Play-Off round of the newly-formed Europa Conference League, which would mean an additional 17 games next season if we went all the way to the final. I believe that a sixth (or even 5th – very unlikely) place finish would mean entry at the group stage of the Europa League, which would add 15 games next season if we reached the final. Of course this kind of success in Europe is not likely to happen, but even being in the group stage of either competition adds a significant number of games in the first half of the season. We would need a much enhanced squad to do either competition justice.
Surely we can win at least one of our final two games to guarantee to be playing in Europe next season? After the excellent season that we’ve had so far it would be a big disappointment to fail to qualify for one of the European competitions. But West Brom showed against Liverpool last Sunday that they can be difficult to beat, so just because they have been relegated doesn’t mean we can take a victory for granted. In fact once teams reach a stage where they can play without pressure, they are often a much better side as a result.
In over 100 games against West Brom in major competitions each team has won 41 times, but in the 21 meetings in the Premier League, we have won eight, nine have been drawn and the Baggies have won four. Of course we won the reverse fixture in January (2-1) and a win tonight would be the first time in 15 years that we have completed the double over them, but more importantly would guarantee at least a seventh place finish and qualification for Europe.
Interestingly I read that West Brom have only won one of their past sixteen midweek league games, and all six of such games with Allardyce in charge. And Big Sam has lost in all four meetings against West Ham since he left us six years ago. These are the type of statistics that have come to haunt West Ham in the past. How long is it since we’ve kept a clean sheet? We’ve only kept two in the Premier League in this calendar year (Leeds and Sheffield United). I am looking forward to a repeat of the score at the London Stadium four months ago. We are 4/7 to win the game and 13/2 to win by two goals to one.
A win tonight would be great, plus we will all be hoping that Villa can deny a Tottenham victory. What are the chances?