City’s court win intensifies top-4 race in Premier League
Manchester City’s success in overturning its Champions League ban on Monday has huge ramifications on the Premier League and the remaining two teams that will qualify for Europe’s top club competition.
Chelsea, Manchester United and Leicester — and maybe Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United, too — are now fighting for two qualifying spots instead of three with two weeks of the season remaining.
The fight for a top-five finish has reverted back to needing to be in the top four to join champion Liverpool and City, already secured in second place, in earning tens of millions of dollars in UEFA prize money next season.
The most concerned team is likely to be Leicester.
In the top four since September — and, in December, even looking like the most realistic title challenger to Liverpool — Leicester has imploded, collecting only two wins from its last 11 league games stretching back to the end of January.
After losing to relegation-threatened Bournemouth 4-1 on Sunday, Leicester will find itself in fifth place if Man United beats Southampton on Monday.
United appears much more likely to secure a top-four finish and return to the Champions League after a season’s absence.
With four straight wins ahead of the Southampton game, United is the form team in the league and also has the most benign remaining schedule with upcoming matches against Crystal Palace and West Ham before what could be a winner-takes-all game game at Leicester on the final weekend of the season.
Making it all the more intriguing is the fact that another final-day match is between Chelsea and Wolves.
Chelsea is currently in third place, one point ahead of Leicester, but will drop into fourth if United beats Southampton.
A victory over already-relegated Norwich on Tuesday appears pivotal for Chelsea, considering its last two games are at Liverpool — a team chasing records to cap its title-winning season — and then Wolves, who have gained a reputation for beating the top teams over the last two years.
Wolves are in sixth place, four points off the top four, so the ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport has come as a blow to their Champions League ambitions.
Indeed, Wolves’ best chance of qualifying for the competition is now to win the Europa League, which earns entry to the Champions League. The team coached by Nuno Espirito Santo has reached the last 16 of the Europa League and will play the second leg of its match against Olympiakos next month, with the score at 1-1 after the first leg.
Likewise, seventh-place Sheffield United needed City to lose its appeal at sport’s highest court to stand a realistic chance of a finish in the Champions League positions, a prospect that would have seemed fanciful for a team that was widely tipped for relegation at the start of the season.
Europa League qualification will be Sheffield United’s target now, with seventh place possibly earning that reward if Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea win the FA Cup.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80