Many eyes may well have been on the F1 in Hungary yesterday although the race for Europe in the Premier league probably provides closer competition (in both the wet and dry), writes Abu George.
The peculiarity of the FA Cup draw also enabled us to assess the relative health of two of the three Champions League protagonist teams going head-to-head. Of course, with the revised and condensed fixture schedule it is another match in which four fatigued teams had to balance their squads and prioritise league and cup opportunities.
In recent weeks Manchester United players have looked jaded after securing the obscure record of most consecutive premier league victories by a three-goal margin while Chelsea have produced some magical performances intertwined with those of inconceivable inconsistency.
Frank Lampard’s Chelsea have conceded more goals on the break than any other team and consequently had lost three times to United in entering this fixture. However, this time last year his Derby team suffered the same fate and yet overcame Leeds in their fourth fixture, which was decisive in taking them to the playoff final. The synergies between his sides are uncanny!
It is intriguing to see the progress this season of two teams led by former players with limited managerial experience. Fans of the Red Devils will point to the weakened team sheet and misfortune with several clashes of heads although the Pensioners also opted for a more youthful line up. Chelsea were deserving winners.
Manchester City, freshly returned to the Champions League thanks to an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), were aiming to become the first team in history to win both cup competitions in consecutive seasons. Yet the apprentice (Arteta) out-strategised the master (Guardiola) with a counter-attacking master class to see Arsenal secure a record 21st FA Cup Final and add to their 13 successes.
In many respects this season is no different to any other as the successful sides see fixtures arrive thick and fast. Managers are faced with the conundrum as to whether to rotate their playing eleven ensuring those selected are fit and fresh or stick with the same players to
There is an old adage that success breeds success within football (along with many sports) players benefitting from confidence generated by winning.
“Giving your all” and “retaining focus” are other mantras often touted by managers. Liverpool, despite being the most dominant side in history until securing the title, have subsequently faded and stand between Chelsea and qualification.
Which team will turn up? The wounded lion smarting from the lost opportunity to allow statistics to confirm their championship-winning performances (as defeat last week to Arsenal robbed them of the ability to overhaul the record points tally set by Manchester City) or the “not quite with it” side that is still apparently celebrating their first title in 30 years? Chelsea are in pole position although then face a Wolves team intent on their own European qualification and has a reputation for slaying the top teams.
The permutations and combinations for both competitions are mouthwatering.
Manchester United head into their match against West Ham wondering whether the hammers will play with freedom now safety has effectively been secured or hope that the side managed by former-manager David Moyes takes their foot off the gas.
Irrespective of how this plays out there will be something riding on their match against Leicester. The Foxes humbling defeat to Tottenham means they could now be dependent on winning by a significant margin over United.
At the restart after the Covid-break Leicester looked to be sitting comfortably in third, five points clear of Chelsea, who themselves were three clear of the chasing pack. With Manchester City banned from European competition everything looked rosy!
Yet United have been the in-form team since the restart compiling 17 points compared to Leicester’s 9 in the same period. The Midlands team has suffered from injuries although Solskjaer’s side may be starting to similarly suffer.
Theoretically, the lowest ranked of these three will leave one further place for qualifying for the junior European competition.
The race for next seasons Europa League is equally enticing.
Fifth and sixth will qualify automatically although seventh is a possibility. Six teams are in the race for these three positions although one of the three above would see it as a consolation.
The lowest placed of the remainder, Arsenal, has a separate opportunity to claim that additional place by winning the FA Cup and they have the easiest fixtures meaning 59 points is perfectly feasible.
Burnley look to be the least likely having played a game more and having a significantly inferior goal difference.
Sheffield United have had a wonderful season although I cannot see them securing sufficient points from their remaining fixtures to make up the gap while Wolves and Spurs both play a Crystal Palace side that has struggled for points since the restart to the season.
As the FA Cup is not played until August expect the team in 7th to be watching on intently supporting Chelsea!
Yet there is a further oddity that could change all of this! While highly unlikely, if Chelsea win the Champions League and Manchester United or Wolves (while finishing outside the top 4) win the Europa League they would automatically qualify for Europe’s premier competition.
If Manchester City win Europe then England will still only have four teams qualify for next season.
As any nation is permitted a maximum of five sides then if Leicester City finish in the top four they may still miss out! The same could also apply to United if Wolves raise the European trophy instead – which could make for an intriguing semi-final between the pair!
FA Cup winners – Chelsea (meaning 5,6,7 in the league qualify).
Of the chasing group I think that Spurs and Wolves will taste European action although there may be one or two that finish level and miss out on goal difference.
I believe that United will secure at least a point against West Ham meaning Leicester will need to press forward for the victory – which is not their forte. Therefore, United and Chelsea to qualify for the Champions League.