The final stretch of the Premier League race has rarely been as interesting as this season. Well, at least when it comes to the top end of the table.
Six clubs have established themselves as England’s elite, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the league itself at the moment that all six still compete in Europe. Two of them in the Europa League at this stage, it’s not unheard of, but it’s been a long time since four English teams made it to the Champions League quarterfinals.
Rarely has a team managed to upset the odds and walk in on them lately – all the more reason to express massive respect to Leicester City for winning the 2016 title.
At the moment, champions Manchester City and Liverpool are locked in a fierce battle for that throne, with every challenge set by one side met and matched by the other. But whatever happens between those two, it’s hard to imagine the team which comes in second dropping significantly away next season, or losing appeal for top players looking to make a change in their careers.
But it’s a different story for those directly below, especially given that Tottenham Hotspur still haven’t managed to acquire a status of proper title candidate, while Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are struggling to regain it.
Chelsea are probably in the situation most difficult when it comes to attracting top players. Wherever they turn, there is a cloud of uncertainty darkening the view. They will be hoping, and fighting with every means in their possession, to have the two-window transfer ban overturned. The uncertainty itself is doing enough damage as it is. They cannot work on deals for new arrivals until they know their fate, nor would the players potentially targeted accept to have their future hanging like that. And by the time the decision is final, it could be too late. Should they fail to qualify for the Champions League again, manager Maurizio Sarri could be in for a sacking, and that’s another uncertainty in their affairs which could act as a double repellent for potential quality signings.
Spurs are yet to match the achievements of the others in this group, and they’re widely regarded as the “smallest” of the big clubs. That makes it difficult for them to match the others in the transfer market, and snap up a player, for example, wanted by Manchester United. That in itself is a tough problem to overcome, and should they finish outside the top four, the small hill could become a huge mountain.
Speaking of United, they went through a thorny bush towards the end of the reign of Jose Mourinho, and even though they’ve come out into the daylight, the scratches on the skin remain. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done remarkably well since he came in, but now, when he’s been appointed on a three-year contract and is reportedly set to receive substantial transfer funds, the real pressure will begin and it will be interesting to see how he copes. They may be the club with the biggest trophy cabinet in England, but to fail to qualify for the Champions League for the second time in three seasons is certain to leave its mark on their reputation, especially when added to the fact that they haven’t challenged properly for the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson left the Old Trafford dugout in 2013.
And then there’s Arsenal. They had 22 illustrious years under Arsene Wenger, not all successful, mind, but certainly exciting. In his last few seasons, the Frenchman seemed like the game was slowly but steadily leaving him behind, and the decision to say goodbye to him was probably the right one. Unai Emery has come in his place, chopping and changing lots of things as he came. He made a number of signings straight away and with very limited funds. Apart from Stephan Lichtsteiner who came as a free agent, all of them have arguably justified his faith. But like with Solskjaer, now the real pressure begins. The club have given him a season to prove he knows what he’s doing, and he has certainly proven that. But in order to make the Emirates an attractive destination for top players once more, apart from substantial funds, a Champions League place is a must. A season (or two) out of it is perhaps repairable reputation damage, but when it becomes a regular occurrence, it spells decline.
In short, without even considering the potential financial gain of it, qualifying for Europe’s elite club competition is simply vital for all of them; but two will be left outside the door nonetheless.
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