EPL 2016/17: How fourth place may not guarantee Champions League football
Finishing fourth may not guarantee a Premier League side the opportunity to take part in the 2017/18 Champions League. A scenario exists where the fourth-placed team could drop down into the Europa League.
But first, a brief flashback...
Back in 2012, when Arsenal’s season predictably collapsed in February, Arsene Wenger made an observation that has since been ridiculed. “The first trophy is to finish in the top four,” he said and Arsenal fans have never forgiven him since.
Although everyone understood where he was coming from – what with the prestige and financial rewards that came with playing in the Champions League – the lack of ambition is what stood out. Of course, it wasn’t a statement made at the start of the season; but when a club hasn’t won a trophy for years, the quote does incense the fans.
The top four has always been a major talking point in England. One of three leagues that are currently guaranteed four spots in Europe’s premier competition (the other two being the Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga), the battle for the top four has always been an intriguing one that usually goes all the way down to the final day of the season.
Time and again we have seen English teams qualify for the Champions League by the skin of their teeth. In fact, the 2015/16 season saw both Manchester City and Manchester United finish on 66 points. And, yet again, it was City who claimed bragging rights due to a superior goal difference.
This season, even finishing fourth may not guarantee Champions League football. Here’s why:
Maximum of five teams from one country are allowed in the Champions League
As things stand, there are three ways to get into the Champions League:
– Finish in the top four (the top three get automatic group stage spots while the fourth-placed team goes into a two-legged playoff round)
– Win the Champions League (defending champions qualify for the group stage regardless of their position in the table – Eg. Chelsea in 2012)
– Win the Europa League (Sevilla have made good use of this in the past two seasons)
Now, this is where it gets very tricky in the Premier League this season. It has nothing to do with UEFA’s country coefficients but all about the English teams currently left in Europe.
Leicester City are the only English side left in the Champions League after they beat Sevilla to qualify for the quarter-finals. The Foxes now take on Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in April.
Meanwhile, Manchester United are still in the hunt in the Europa League despite Jose Mourinho’s protestations about their tight schedule which affords them very little rest. The Red Devils have been drawn with Anderlecht.
If Leicester City script another fairy tale and win the Champions League while Manchester United win the Europa League, both teams will play in the Champions League group stages next season. This means that only three other teams can make it to the group stages as UEFA does not allow more than five teams from one country in the Champions League.
That would see the top three teams at the end of 38 rounds qualify while the club that finishes fourth will drop down to the Europa League.
How UEFA changed the rules in recent years
The rules that decide how many teams from one country play in the Champions League have been rewritten time and again over the last few years. Back in the day, no more than four teams from one country could qualify for the Champions League. But it all changed after that night in Istanbul.
When Liverpool won that glorious final against AC Milan, they were actually looking at a season without Champions League football. The Reds had finished fifth in the 2004/05 season – three points behind Merseyside rivals Everton; who were beside themselves until Rafa Benitez’s side completed that epic comeback. UEFA then gave Liverpool a special dispensation to compete in the Champions League – albeit in the first qualifying round.
As a result, England could have actually had five teams in 2005/06 had all of them qualified. Champions Chelsea and second-placed Arsenal qualified for the group stages while Manchester United and Everton entered the competition in the third qualifying round. Predictably, the Toffees fell at that hurdle while the traditional Big Four went through.
The rule was then changed to allow defending champions to enter the group stages. That saw Tottenham Hotspur miss out on the 2012/13 Champions League even though they finished fourth. Chelsea, who had finished a disappointing sixth in the league, focused all their energy on the Champions League and beat Bayern Munich in Munich to get back into the competition.
When the Europa League started to lose its relevance and stood out as a beacon of failure among one of UEFA’s plans to make it an inclusive competition for mid-table teams in their respective leagues, they decided to further reward mediocrity by allowing the winner of the competition to take part in the Champions League group stages the next season.
This allowed Spain to have a record five teams in the 2015/16 Champions League group stages when Sevilla won the Europa League in 2015. The Andalusian club did fall back into the Europa League following the group stages (where they finished third) but won the competition again to return to the Champions League this season where they fell in the Round of 16.
It remains to be seen whether Manchester United win the Europa League but fail to finish in the top four. Leicester City (currently 15th in the league) winning the Champions League seems out of this world but so were the Foxes finishing as Premier League champions last year. Bet on their exit in the knockout stages at your own risk!