What Still Matters In The Premier League

Yesterday, Manchester United beat Aston Villa at Old Trafford, 3-0, to officially clinch the Premier League title. In truth, it had been theirs for months. As anticlimactic as their victory was, the Premier League focus now shifts to two vital races: the fight for Champions League qualification through a top-four finish, and the relegation battle at the bottom of the table. This is where the drama is, where the future of clubs will be decided.

Some people will tell you that United isn't even as talented a club as crosstown rivals Manchester City, but United had a knack all season of turning losses into draws, draws into wins. To understand how, look no further than their star forward, Robin van Persie.

In his first season from Arsenal, the Dutchman scored 24 goals and assisted on eight more, often winning his team points close to the final whistle. It's fitting, then, that RVP scored a hat trick for "Vanchester United" yesterday in the first half-hour of play to seal the match and the league. His second goal, in particular, is a candidate for goal of the year:

If United are the undisputed class, the race for the top-four has only gotten more dire. After a tough draw at Arsenal, Everton shat the bed on Saturday when they lost 1-0 away to Sunderland. With four matches remaining, the Toffees are six points off the pace of fourth-place Chelsea and a Champions League spot. And Liverpool, who only had the slimmest of hopes of qualifying before the weekend, all but killed their CL aspirations when they drew Chelsea on Sunday 2-2, thanks to a last-second Luis Suarez header past Chelsea goalkeeper Peter Cech. Thirty minutes before his late heroics, though, Suarez bit opposing defender Branislav Ivanovic on the arm. Though he wasn't reprimanded on the pitch, he'll almost certainly face a multi-match ban. (With Ajax in 2010, Suarez was banned seven matches for biting. Yes, this has happened before.) Without Suarez, on certain days the league's best player, Liverpool are playing out the string.

Second-place Manchester City are five points clear of Arsenal with a game in hand, and though it's possible, it'd take a disaster to drop the defending English champions out of Champions League qualification. So that leaves the three London clubs—Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham—fighting for two spots.

Arsenal jumped up to third with 63 points after beating Fulham 1-0 on Sunday, but Gunners starting forward Olivier Giroud picked up a straight red in the 90th minute, and will have to sit for three of the last four matches. He's left a bit to be desired in front of the net this year, but he's still the club's second-leading scorer, and Arsenal will have to rely on the smaller Lukas Podolski or Theo Walcott through the middle Sunday in a must-win match at home against Manchester United. If they don't qualify, their £70 million war chest to spend in the summer transfer window will be all but useless. As it is, their top target Mario Götze has already signed with Bayern Munich.

Chelsea are just a point behind Arsenal with a game in hand, but they're hamstrung a bit by their success in this season's Europa League. On Thursday, they play Swiss side FC Basel in the tournament semifinals, who just ousted Tottenham in the quarters. No team wants to go to Switzerland on a Thursday with their hold on the Champions League so tenuous. Because of the extra games, they'll have to play Basel on May 2, travel to United on May 5, then host Tottenham in the biggest match of the season three days later on May 8. This brutal weeklong stretch will either firmly entrench Chelsea in the top four, or send them back to the Europa League next year.

Tottenham are in fifth, just a single point behind Chelsea and two behind Arsenal. They looked like they'd be further behind after getting dominated by City in the first half of their match Sunday, but Gareth Bale, who's carried Spurs for most of the season and is a player of the year candidate, had returned from injury. In the second half, Bale assisted Clint Dempsey with a ridiculous cross and scored himself in an inspired seven-minute span that saw three Tottenham goals. Spurs won 3-1 to keep the pressure on Chelsea and Arsenal.

It's easy to look at the remaining fixtures and highlight the trio's matchups against England's other big clubs: In addition to the Chelsea/Tottenham match, the Blues have have United and Everton, while Arsenal have to fend off United. But before the season's out, it's possible that these clubs's fates may be decided by one of their more lowly foes who are battling just as hard to stave off relegation.

Every season around this time, the list of teams who are still fighting for something is short. United can coast for the year. City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton are still playing for European qualification. But after that, there's a gap of midtable teams—the West Broms and West Hams and Fulhams—who have absolutely nothing to play for. They won't play in Europe next year, and they won't be relegated. But after that, there are seven teams that could be sent down to the lower division: Sunderland, Stoke City, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Wigan, QPR, and Reading pulling up the rear.

There's nothing like relegation in professional American sports, so imagine that instead of terrible NBA teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and Phoenix Suns losing almost all of their games and being rewarded with improving their team through one of the top picks in the next draft, they have to go to the NBDL and spend a season playing the Bakersfield Jam or Sioux Falls Skyforce. It'd be embarrassing. Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic and even Michael Beasley would demand trades. The organization would make less money from attendance and television, because no one gives a motherfuck about Tuesday night's clash with the Tulsa 66ers. Salaries would be slashed. Staff would get fired. And ultimately, it would be harder to get back into the NBA because the first-year NBDL roster would be much worse than the one that got relegated. So in some ways, the relegation battle is even more important than the Champions League race. If you're one of the Premier League teams in the relegation battle, you're scrapping like hell to stay up.

This affects even the best teams. Think back to last year. Wigan looked like certain relegation candidates until April 11, when they stole a 1-0 home win from United. On May 6, Aston Villa, also battling to stay up, converted its only shot on goal to draw Spurs, 1-1. Because of the Tottenham draw, Arsenal finished the season one point better than Spurs, and took the last slot in the Champions League. And if not for the Wigan result, we wouldn't have witnessed maybe the most dramatic moment in Premier League history. City, down 2-1 to 17th-place QPR on the final matchday, scored two goals in stoppage time to win, 3-2, and take the Premier League title on goal differential.

This season, 19th-place QPR and 20th-place Reading are tied for the worst point total in the league, with 24 points. Wigan occupy the final relegation spot with 31 points, seven clear of QPR and Reading. Wigan also has a game in hand. And though QPR and Reading can theoretically put together 4 wins and climb out of the jaws of failure, they've won four and five games, respectively, all season. They'll leave it on the pitch, sure, but there's not much to leave.

Ahead of Wigan, though, are Aston Villa with 34 points. Three points atop Villa are Sunderland, Stoke, and Newcastle, in 14th, 15th, and 16th place. They all could drop into the danger zone with string of bad results.

Spurs play Wigan on Saturday, and end their season with games against Stoke and Sunderland. Chelsea have Aston Villa left. Arsenal finish with QPR, Wigan, and Newcastle. Nearly every match the three Champions League hopefuls have left will be against a side with something at stake.

Forget the league title. There's plenty of drama left to be had in the Premier League, deciding who will go to Europe and who will drop to the Championship. The former is especially vital for clubs hoping to become elite; the latter is about survival. Four weeks to go. Four groups of supporters who are going to be crushed.

Photo Credit: Getty