31 March 2014

Race for 4th; Six matches, 18 points...is 3rd still possible?

Well, with no help from Fulham or Tottenham, we made about as much from the weekend as anyone could have expected. With six matches left to play, we sit in fourth place, albeit a bit precariously. While we control our fourth-place fate, a dropped point is all it takes to let Everton get level on points with us, sending to goal-differentials to decide who goes where next year. We're currently at +19; they're at +16. Let's take a quick look at how to avoid this potentially messy situation and to clinch fourth place outright—with an eye to nicking third. Our magic number for 4th place: 18 points.

Any combination of points we gain and points Everton drop that adds up to 18 gives us fourth place. Simple as that. Before the weekend, it was 19, and our draw with Man City shaved off one point. If we go into Goodison Park on Sunday and manage a draw, the magic number drops to 15 (we earn a point while Everton drops two, 1+2=3). If we win, well, there's six points right there and we're looking at 12 points to go. With five matches still to play, we could afford just one draw while still controlling our destiny. In fact, while we're at it, there's a ghost of a chance that we could climb to third place, but this is a tetchy proposition that depends on us claiming all 18 points still on offer while Chelsea drops at least six. It's hard to see both variables coming through, even if our run-in is a bit softer than theirs. We do have the FA Cup to pursue, and even if Chelsea's continued foray into the Champions League distracts them, they really only have a trip to Anfield to sweat over. Still, as their own loss to Crystal Palace shows, anything can happen, which is both an invitation—and a warning.

4th place
Of course, Sunday's clash is our most-difficult remaining fixture: away to a rival vying to overtake us, Everton are about as in-form as any other club in the Prem, even more so at home, where they haven't lost since late December. If we draw on Sunday, Everton may be resigned to fifth place, what with visits from Man U and Man City bookending a trip to face Southampton. They'd have to take all of the points from their remaining matches, including a win over us, to get to 81 points. A draw on Sunday would permit us to still climb as high as 80 points if we win our remaining five matches, but Everton would then only be able to get to 79 if they win their remaining six fixtures. For Everton, then, winning on Sunday is paramount to their hopes. A draw leaves their fate in our hands; they would have to hope that we drop points elsewhere while they keep every single point available. This is not to say we have it sewn up by any means.We cannot afford to underestimate anyone at this point. For those brimming with confidence, for example, West Brom have held us to two draws already this season, and they'll likely be in the heat of a relegation battle when we play. Scoff if you will, but the Prem match that we drew marked the first dropped points for us since Aston Villa on opening day.

Of course, fourth place means we'll appear in the Champions League qualifiers again, stretching Arsène's impressive streak to 17 but adding a two-match playoff to our list. While we despatched Fener handily enough (5-0 aggregate), there's nothing wrong with keeping an eye on third place. It lies out of our reach at the moment, but outright qualification would not only remove that two-match playoff from our fixtures, it would also clarify our status somewhat in the summer transfer-window. In years past, we've been told that it's harder to sign top-notch players when our Champions League status still hangs in the balance. Let's take a look, then, at what it might take for us to get there.

3rd place
After 32 matches, we have 64, Chelsea have 69, and Liverpool have 71. After 30, Man City have 67. If only to keep things simple, Chelsea looks to be the club we're likeliest to reel in (if anything of the sort is possible at all). Now, if they go on and win their remaining six, they'll climb to 87, well beyond our reach. However, if they can drop six points and finish at 81, there's hope yet. We'll have to win all of our remaining matches to get to 82 points. I won't get into the how's and why's that would lead to us level on points as it's too remote and too complex for my feeble mind. Even if I could, it would amount to little if not nothing because Chelsea's goal-differential is +38. Ours is +19. I won't go into how a certain 6-0 loss contributed to those stats. Water under the bridge. Sorry. Wrong idiom? I digress. There's something to play for, still. Chelsea did, after all, lose to Crystal Palace. They have PSG to wrestle with, along with the possibility of future Champions League play to ponder as well. Sadly, alone among their remaining fixtures, only their trip to Anfield looks to pose any difficulties as Liverpool will likely still be contending with Man City for the title at that point. Even if we make allowances for the idea that four of the teams that Chelsea will face—Sunderland, Swansea, Norwich, and Cardiff—may still be fighting to stave off relegation, it's a hard case to make. However, during their 2012 journey to the Champions League final, they slumped to sixth in the Prem. This was more of a season-long malaise and not so much as a final-weeks collapse, though.

Still, while realizing that third place is not simply there for the taking, I don't think I'm raving like a lunatic when I suggest it's still on the table. We'd need help. Sunderland fought them to a tough 3-4 Prem loss and went on to dump them from the league cup. Stoke beat them 3-2 in the Prem before losing 0-1 in the FA Cup. Liverpool lost 1-2. There's precedent, if not proof. Qualifying for third—leap-frogging Mourinho in the process—would be doubly delicious. Humiliations galore for him. Enough schadenfreude to last through the summer. A glorious end to a season that has been inspiring at times, dispiriting at others. Signing a few players would get that much simpler, and we could look ahead to the 2014-15 season with even a bit more optimism and faith.

I'm not turning up my nose at fourth place by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just not yet ready to place the order.