Breaking Down the Premier League's UEFA Champions League Race

Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2013

Despite some claims of it currently being in a state of decline, the Premier League remains one of Europe’s elite divisions, often handed the moniker of being “the most entertaining league in the world.”

Aside from the race for the title, the hunt for Champions League qualification in the English top flight is just as—perhaps more—interesting to watch for some, becoming closer and closer a call season after season.

With teams such as Manchester City, Tottenham and Everton all rising to relative prominence in recent years, competing for Europe on a more consistent basis as a result, the average quality in the division’s top places is as high as ever.

Between 2003 and 2008, the average distance between first and fourth in the Premier League came to 24 points. In that time, the biggest gap between those two places was 34 points, Chelsea winning the 2004-05 campaign while Everton clinched the final Champions League place.

In the last five years, however, that number has dropped dramatically and since 2008, the average points difference between first and fourth has come to just 17.2 points, including the current 2012-13 season.

With just two points currently separating Arsenal (67) and Tottenham (65)—third and fifth in the table, respectively—these last three fixtures of the Premier League calendar are shaping up for quite the climax.

What’s more, Chelsea stand level on points with Andre Villas-Boas’ side, wedged in between the pair but having played a game less and with the second-best goal difference in the league (plus-33).

Not to mention Everton’s flagging challenge to break the top four for the first time since 2005, which, considering the six points between them and fifth-place Spurs, would require a calamitous fall on behalf of their nearest rivals but remains mathematically possible nonetheless.

In short, it’s all rather tight.

Despite the general view that his tenure as interim Chelsea manager has been a disappointing one, Rafa Benitez has led the club well through a very congested calendar of late, a sentiment Sir Alex Ferguson was recently reported to share (via Sky Sports).

The Spaniard’s side just about lost out on a place in the FA Cup final, have managed to earn a Europa League final fixture against Benfica and maintained their top-four place domestically.

The hard work is most certainly not over for the Blues, though, having to face Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton in their last four Premier League fixtures as well as a reinvigorated Aston Villa.

Much to their disdain, the Europa League final is awkwardly sandwiched in between their last two league dates, meaning a timetable of three matches in one week awaits them in mid-May.

However, considering the money that’s been spent by the Roman Abramovich-funded club in recent years, one might think Benitez has the resources at his disposal necessary to see their way through to a top-four place.

For Arsenal, this season’s biggest disappointment has been attaining any real consistency at times. Fortunately for the Gunners, they appear to be finding that consistency at the ideal moment and are enjoying a nine-match unbeaten streak with just two games left to run in their season, one less than Tottenham and two less than Chelsea.

This means the most points Arsene Wenger’s men can finish on is 73 points, quite a likely eventuality given those two matches are against Wigan (home) and Newcastle United (away), both of whom are in the Premier League’s bottom five.

Thanks to the evening out of talent in the top four, 73 points has been enough for a top-three finish in both of the 2011-12 and 2010-11 campaigns, putting a Champions League berth firmly within reach of the North Londoners.

This would leave Spurs as the outsiders for participation amongst the European elite next season. AVB’s side have back-to-back away fixtures on their schedule next, first to Stamford Bridge and then to the Britannia Stadium, before then hosting Sunderland on the final day of the season.

Looking at the table, it would seem that Spurs’ season will be decided in their next two outings if not solely by just who comes out on top of their upcoming clash against Chelsea.

All that being said, another struggle exists in tying up the third spot, a far easier place to start the Champions League campaign from given that it’s in the group stage while the club that finishes fourth only enters the competition’s playoff round.

This particular race is made all the more interesting by the fact that Arsenal, although two points above Chelsea, are worse off in goal difference by just two heading into these final stages of the season.

On paper, the safe would be that the Blues can take advantage of their two games in hand, beating Arsenal to fourth spot while Tottenham settle for a return to the Europa League.

Thanks to their success in continental competition in recent decades, England still boasts a rather impressive UEFA coefficient and, as a result, receives the premium in European qualifying places.

Due to the rise of German and Spanish teams of late, there was a worry that England would slip to third in the coefficient rankings (explored by The Guardian’s James Riach earlier this season), which would be disastrously symbolic of any apparent fall from grace.

That being said, one wouldn’t know there was anything thing wrong considering the talent on display in the Premier League on a weekly basis, as the English top flight continues to deliver in what it offers best—entertainment.