Three days after beating Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinal, Chelsea easily dispatched Russian club Rubin Kazan, 3-1, to take a commanding lead in their Europa League quarterfinal. Tottenham had a tougher time in their first leg, drawing Swiss side Basel 2-2 at home. During the match, Spurs centerback William Gallas, winger Aaron Lennon, and most tragically Gareth Bale, who is almost singlehandedly carrying the club, were all injured. They're expected out for at least two weeks. Chelsea and Tottenham should advance in the tournament, and it's a good bet that one of the sides will hoist the Europa League trophy in the end. At this point in the calendar, nothing could be worse.
That's because we're quickly approaching the end of this year's Premier League season. With only seven or eight matches remaining per club, the race for a top-four finish, and with it, Champions League qualification, should be all that matters.
After the domestic title, Champions League qualification is the most important goal in European soccer. It's the most challenging and prestigious club tournament in the world, and an appearance brings clubs boatloads of glory, money, and just as important, it allows clubs to pursue the world's best players in the offseason transfer window who would only agree to play for Champions League-bound teams. It's a cycle, since better players translate into further Champions League berths, which translates into further glory, money, and again, better players.
The Premier League's first-place team, Manchester United, has 77 points on the season; they won't be caught. After that, it's a clusterfuck, with six teams fighting for the final three Champions League spots. Manchester City is in second with 62 points, five points clear of Tottenham, though Spurs have played an extra game. After a shock loss to Southampton last weekend, Chelsea now occupy the fourth and final Champions League spot with 55, two points behind Spurs. Arsenal are two points back of Chelsea, and Everton two behind Arsenal. Liverpool also have an outside shot.
The most intriguing of the group is the race between the three London clubs in states of transition: Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal, in third, fourth and fifth.
Tottenham are trying to solidify themselves as a legitimate top-flight club domestically and in Europe. Chelsea, once England's top team, have been struggling over the past two seasons as they've tried to phase out their aging core. And Arsenal, just on the outside, are in danger of not making the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.
Here's the problem: If the Champions League is the NCAA basketball tournament, then the Europa League is the NIT. Though a Europa berth is an achievement for many clubs, for Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal it'd be a disappointment. It's a consolation prize, and at least one of them is going to have to accept it.
It's the end of the year, and the demand of the brutal, 38-match domestic season is starting to catch up to clubs. The schedule's condensed now due to postponed games. Players are tired, injured, even bored. When you combine fatigue with desperation, ridiculous shit happens. Take, for example, the Chelsea-Southampton result.
If Chelsea and Tottenham make it to the Europa League semifinals, that's at least two more midweek matches added to their schedules, two more than Arsenal have.
Back in the Premier League, Chelsea still have to travel to Liverpool and United, and host Everton. Chelsea also must play City in the FA Cup—their reward for beating United on Monday. A weakened Spurs side hosts Everton on Sunday, and City again in two weeks. The biggest moment, though, will be when Chelsea and Spurs face off. A win for one team would likely solidify Champions League chances, while seriously denting the other's. Arsenal, who only have Premier League matches remaining, have a seemingly easy schedule outside of hosting United. Of course, this is Arsenal we're talking about—a wildly inconsistent team in the midst of their worst season under Arsene Wenger.
It's always a fight and a priority to make the Champions League, but this year, for these clubs, the stakes are even higher. With Real Madrid, Barcelona and others poking around, there's speculation that Bale, who's established himself as one of the world's top players, could leave Spurs if they finish outside of the top four. Failure to qualify next year would throw a wrench in Chelsea's rebuilding process. And though Arsenal have already been promised a summer transfer budget of more than $100 million to bolster the club, it won't matter if there's no Champions League in 2014.
With those stakes, a Europa League title just isn't good enough, and each round comes at great cost, be it fatigue or injury. With every match, and every win, the English giants march toward Europa League triumph, and inch a little farther from Champions League glory.