With twelve games to go, the race for the Premier League title is heating up. Four clubs (Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City) have pulled out in front whilst Manchester United, Southampton, West Ham and Liverpool are leading the chasing pack. Whilst only one team can win the title, the desire to finish in the top four places is strong given that they all are rewarded with coveted Champions League spots. England has had four spaces in Europe’s premier tournament since 2001 but now that could be under threat as Italy close the gap on England in UEFA’s coefficient table. Introduced in 1979 as a way of statistically ranking and seeding teams in club and international UEFA competitions, the coefficient system has been widely criticized for favouring the stronger nations across Europe who compete more regularly in the various competitions. That said, without a viable alternative it is the only system that can be used fairly. Currently the club coefficient rankings are determined by the results of clubs within both the Champions League and the Europa League over the last five seasons added to the clubs association coefficient.
Whilst English clubs have consistently featured and reached the closing stages of the Champions League over the past five seasons, it is their failure to take the Europa League seriously that now puts their position in the coefficient standings at threat. In the past five years, only six teams have made it at least to the round of 32 with only Tottenham and Newcastle making it further (quarter finals) and Chelsea running out as winners in the 2012-2013 season. In comparison, Italy have consistently featured in the final stages of both competitions with Juventus making the final of the Champions League and both Fiorentina and Napoli making the semi finals of the Europa League last year. This has led to Italy closing the gap on England who now run a risk of losing one of their Champions League spots to their Italian counterparts starting from the 2017/2018 season.
With this, the Premier League has sprung into action and is contemplating offering its sides competing in the Europa League financial incentives to go as far in the competition as possible. Also on the table for discussion is the potential for better organization on cup competitions including only playing cup fixtures midweek, the removal of two legged semi finals in the League cup and replays. It’s a bold move by the Premier League as it desperately looks to hang on to that fourth Champions League spot. But why has it gotten to this stage and more importantly why have English clubs not taken the Europa League seriously until now? The truth is that English clubs see the Europa league and its current setup as a hindrance. Too many games, too much traveling with little reward has always been the principle complaints. A long Europa league campaign can have a major effect on a team’s league performance as Newcastle found out in the 2012/2013 season. With a small squad to play with, Newcastle struggled in the league due to injuries and fatigue picked up during their run to the quarterfinals that year. After being knocked out by Benfica, then boss Alan Pardew admitted that the European campaign had disrupted his side’s league form with Newcastle only picking up two wins in eighteen, slipping into the relegation zone in the process. Whilst they survived, the valuable lesson learned was that to compete at home and abroad you need to have a large group of talented players, something that few clubs outside of the top five have that their fingertips.
Both Italy and England have three sides remaining in this years competition which could ultimately have a major effect on the standings. With three teams each left in the competition, the results of their upcoming games on Thursday have added weight. Tottenham travel to Fiorentina in a rich vein of form and will be hoping to put one over their Italian opponents in the first league. But for manager Mauricio Pochettino the game presents another difficult decision. Sitting second in the Premier League, only two points behind leaders Leicester this could be his sides best chance of winning the title that he will get. So the question remains will he play a full strength side against Fiorentina and risk injuries that could affect his teams run in towards the title or will he sacrifice the Europa League to ensure Tottenham have their best shot? For the League it is difficult call to make – on the one hand they want Tottenham to challenge in the last few months of the season as it makes their product more attractive. But defeat and an early exit for Spurs could cost them in the long run with England losing one of its spots. Not an easy decision by any shape of the imagination.