Monday, April 16, 2007

Premiership: Endgame II

Judging by the queue of clubs jostling for position at the upper end of the Premiership's also-rans, the prospect of feeling the cold steel of a carabiniero's baton is not enough to deter England's middleweight sides from dreaming of a European adventure next season.

With Chelsea and Manchester United's providing the entertainment at the F.A.'s overdue and overpriced housewarming bash on May 19th, three UEFA Cup places are cast amongst the Premiership middle order, like breadcrusts in the direction of so many ravenous, mangy pigeons.

The Lord Said "Go Fourth"
First thing's first though, and the final Champions League spot about which there is any modicum of doubt. Arsenal's victory over Bolton at the weekend surely secures that prized fourth place for the north London dilettantes, and victory in their game in hand over Manchester City tonight would shut the entry door to English football's most jealously guarded clique.

All the same, the degree to which Arsenal's season has deflated is illustrated by the very fact that the workaday likes of Bolton and Everton are sniffing about the treasured passageway to Europe's elite at all. Much for Arsene to ruminate on in the months ahead.

UEFA Lot to Look Forward To
Five clubs eye up those three UEFA Cup places: Bolton and Everton, flicking through magazines in the departure lounge on 54 points each; Portsmouth and Spurs queuing at check-in on 49 points; Reading have their eyes on the duty free at 48.

Lucky for Everton that they have those points stowed away; they must play both Manchester United (home) and Chelsea (away) before the season is out. They'll require at least four points from their trip to West Ham and the visit of Portsmouth to Goodison to earn the right to exit Europe ignominiously before the leaves have left the autumnal trees.

Spurs have a game in hand on the others, with four of their five remaining games against bottom half teams. Although they must welcome Arsenal to the Lane on Saturday, they would appear to have the quality to take care of business sufficiently. Indeed, although an away point at Wigan will attract little attention in the clubs annals, their response to going behind on three separate occasions, in the aftermath of a disappointing European exit, demonstrated an admirable character often found absent in the club.

Bolton can inflict serious harm on Reading's hopes of a happy ending to their fairytale season when the two sides meet at the Reebok on Saturday. The general notion that Reading's extraordinary campaign will peter out politely might prove misplaced if they can survive Lancashire undefeated; they host Newcastle and Watford, then travel to Blackburn on the last day, all games against sides with nothing but win bonuses to play for.

Portsmouth followed up their victory over Manchester United last Saturday with a loss at Watford, typical of their curate's egg of a season. An aptitude for upsets would serve them well in the run-in, facing as they do Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as away trips to Everton and Aston Villa. It's a menu designed to choke a side of Portsmouth's inconsistency, and the accession of Bolton, Everton and Spurs into the UEFA Cup will be the result.

Tomorrow : What Lies Beneath: The Relegation Battle



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