England's top-four race is anything but straightforward as the Premier League season winds down–and a pair of outside competitions could impact the fortunes of clubs hoping to be in next season's Champions League.
England's top-four race is anything but straightforward as the Premier League season winds down.
Four teams remain within touching distance of each other entering midweek slate of action after which all sides will have played 35 games and have just three matches to go. The muddled mess isn't limited to just table congestion, though. There's the matter of the outside factors still in play that could determine who is playing in European competition next season and who will either miss out entirely–or even have to drop down to the Europa League level.
With the Champions League and Europa League winners automatically being guaranteed berths in next season's Champions League group stage and English teams remaining alive in both competitions' semifinals, chaos could reign supreme. Leagues can only place a maximum of five teams in a following season's Champions League–the top four finishers and any UCL or UEL winner that finishes fifth or lower. With Man City and Liverpool guaranteed top-two finishes and the other places in the top four set to go to two of Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, there are some intriguing possibilities down the line.
There are three key scenarios that could play out and might alter calculus that is otherwise straightforward for next season's Champions League qualification:
What if Liverpool or Tottenham win the Champions League?
Liverpool will either win the Premier League or finish in second, so it's going to be in the Champions League next season no matter what. Since that's the case, the Reds potentially winning Champions League this season wouldn't increase the Premier League's number of entrants, under current UEFA rules. The extra berth (since Liverpool would double up on automatic bids through the league and UCL routes) would instead go to the winner of UEFA's 11th-ranked league–which would be Austria's Red Bull Salzburg, under the guidance of incoming American manager Jesse Marsch.
If Tottenham finishes in the top four and wins the Champions League, it would result in the same scenario. However, if Tottenham finishes outside the top four and wins the Champions League, the Premier League would put five teams in next season's competition–Spurs, plus the top four. With the Premier League season finishing before the Champions League final, there's a situation in which Tottenham could find itself in a position of needing to win the Champions League just to secure a place in next season's competition.
What if Arsenal or Chelsea win the Europa League?
For this question, presume that neither Liverpool nor Tottenham wins Champions League but one of Arsenal or Chelsea lifts the Europa League trophy.
If that is the case and the winner also finishes in the top four in England, then the Premier League will not get an extra Champions League berth, with the added opening among the automatic group-stage qualifiers instead going to France's third-place finisher (with Ligue 1 being the fifth-ranked league in Europe), according to UEFA. That was the case last season, when Atletico Madrid finished in Spain's top four and won the UEL title.
If either Arsenal or Chelsea wins the Europa League and does not finish in the top four in England, then the Premier League will get a fifth Champions League entrant.
Arsenal will face Valencia in the UEL semifinals, while Chelsea goes up against Eintracht Frankfurt.
What if Liverpool or Tottenham wins Champions League AND Arsenal or Chelsea wins Europa League?
Here's where things can get a little crazy–and a top-four finisher in England could wind up missing out on the Champions League.
That wouldn't be the case of Liverpool wins the Champions League title, given it would keep the Premier League at its maximum of five UCL entrants.
But say Tottenham wins Champions League and either Arsenal or Chelsea wins Europa League, yet both miss out on the top four in England–a scenario that remains in play. Since the Premier League can't exceed five teams in the Champions League, that would mean the fourth-placed finisher would be dealt the misfortune of being dumped into the Europa League.
England's fourth-placed team has missed out on the Champions League before, albeit under different circumstances. When Chelsea won the Champions League title in 2012 but finished outside the top four in England, it was Tottenham that suffered the consequences, failing to reach the UCL the next season under UEFA's rules, which have since changed. Spurs would surely have no problem returning the favor, should the situation arise.