The Race for Premier League Top Four Runs Through Erratic Tottenham

Spurs, Manchester United and Newcastle are in a tight contest for Champions League qualification, but one will fall short.

The race for Champions League qualification from the Premier League seems at the moment to be governed by two immutable laws: Even after all this time, Tottenham will always find new forms of ineptitude with which to disappoint its fans and amuse the rest of the world; and Tottenham must always be in the top four.

Antonio Conte’s reign as Tottenham manager had ended during the international break, his postmatch rant after his side had thrown away a 3–1 lead to draw 3–3 with the Premier League’s bottom side, Southampton, proving the final straw. His contract was set to expire in the summer, and nobody wanted him there any longer—not players, not fans, not Conte, himself—so when he hinted the long-term chairman Daniel Levy might be responsible for the culture at the club, his departure felt inevitable. But the temporary accession of former Conte assistant Cristian Stellini has not ushered in a new age, quite the contrary—not even after managing director Fabio Paratici took a leave of absence while appeals are heard against his global ban from the game, imposed in Italy after his former club Juventus was convicted of false accounting.

On Monday, Spurs had toiled against a resurgent Everton but seemed to have been handed the win when Abdoulaye Doucouré was sent off, and Michael Keane then gave away a penalty. But at 1–0 up against 10 men, Spurs inexplicably retreated, inviting Everton to attack. Somehow, with a man advantage, it was Spurs under pressure. Lucas Moura was then sent off before Keane belted in an equalizer. Had Tottenham won, it would have gone third; had it lost it would have been fifth. As it was, the draw kept it fourth where it appears to be eternally, no matter how poor the performances or results.

To an extent that’s an artificial position: Spurs has played two more games than both Newcastle in third and Manchester United in fifth. The likelihood is that they will be overhauled. But equally, that Spurs have lingered so long near the top says much about the inconsistency of the other contenders for Champions League qualification.

Newcastle, riding the wave of investment from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (which gave Richard Masters, the chief executive of the Premier League, “legally binding assurances” that it was distinct from the Saudi state when it took over the club in 2021, only to tell a federal court earlier this year that it was not bound by rules on disclosure because it was part of the Saudi state), looks back in form. Five games without a win suggested its struggles to score might undermine it, but with Alexander Isak fit and settled, Newcastle has won three in a row, and outplayed Manchester United from start to finish in a 2–0 win Sunday.

Erik ten Hag’s side, having been so impressive at points earlier in the season, now looks woefully dependent on Casemiro and Christian Eriksen. Injury has kept Eriksen out for more than two months, while Casemiro still has two games to serve on his third suspension of the season—a total of eight games. There has been clear progress this season from United, along with a 7–0 defeat at Liverpool, 6–3 at Manchester City, 4–0 at Brentford and a 2–0 that could easily have been more at Newcastle. It should overhaul Tottenham, which it faces at the end of April, but the mood has changed since lifting the League Cup at the end of February.

Liverpool’s hopes of Champions League qualification, meanwhile, are all but over. The 7–0 home win over United was followed by successive away defeats: 1–0 at Bournemouth and then a 4–1 shellacking at Manchester City. The midfield simply isn’t good enough, which has exposed defensive flaws for which Alisson’s brilliance in goal can only partly compensate. A major reset is needed, and attracting players will be made harder by the probable absence of high-level European football next season.

Sixth and seventh are occupied by Brighton and Brentford, whose 3–3 draw Saturday probably ended the realistic hopes of either making the Champions League. Both, though, are outperforming relatively meager budgets and should relish the prospect of playing in Europe for the first time.

The fight for the third and fourth Champions League slots, though, should be between three sides. And for all the fury at the decline of Liverpool and Chelsea, this is probably a healthy sign for the Premier League. In previous seasons, an elite club could have a dreadful season and still finish fourth to claim a share of the Champions League revenue for the following season, perpetuating the status quo. At least now there are enough elite-level teams to make that a scrap.

Although that doesn’t explain Spurs. Perhaps nothing ever will.

 

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