Manchester City, Liverpool, or Arsenal: Who Is Worthy of the Champions League?
It’s been 281 long days since the 2016-17 English Premier League season began back on August 13 of last year. If you’re keeping track, that’s 281 days of training and travel, player transfers (both rumored and actual), triumph, turmoil and probably a few other soccer-related “t” words I'm forgetting.
But after all that, if you live in the blue half of Manchester, the red half of Liverpool or in the Gooner neighborhoods of North London, the final verdict of how successful this long campaign has been comes down to roughly 90 minutes on Sunday.
Hopes of an EPL title this year for Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal have long been burst, but each has a chance to salvage something from the year with a top-four place and a berth into the giant swimming pool of cash that is the UEFA Champions League.
(Yes, I’m fully aware Arsenal are playing for a trophy at Wembley later this month, but not even the staunchest supporter of the FA Cup would say winning it combined with a fifth-place finish would validate the season for Arsene and Company. UCL or bust, gang.)
City and Liverpool control their own fop-four destiny – win and they’re in – while fifth-place Arsenal need three points at home to Everton and an LFC draw/loss or a complete Manchunian capitulation at Watford to reach the Promised Land of European football for the 21st straight year.
While fans will no doubt worry about the impending results of Sunday’s fixtures – and with every match played simultaneously, there’ll be no shortage of multi-screen drama – there’s also another matter that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Which of these three teams actually deserves to be in the Champions League next year?
Let’s begin with the club most likely to settle into the top four.
First off, it's time for the obligatory mention that Pep Guardiola’s initial season at the Etihad has been a disappointment.
Everyone expected great things in Year 1 from a man who had won six league titles while never failing to reach at least the Champions League semifinals in seven seasons as a senior team manager, but all his expensively constructed side could conjure in 2016-17 was a Round of 16 UCL exit – at the hands of Moncao – and a weak title challenge that more or less ended in October.
Yet for all the “What’s wrong with Pep?” subplots that kept circulating, this was still a solid season (by non-Pep standards, at least) and a major improvement over the 66-point/only-qualified-for-Champions-League-on-goal-difference performance in Manuel Pellegrini’s lame-duck 2015-16 campaign.
A draw Sunday at Vicarage Road would put the Citizens ten points better off than they were last year, while a win would put them only a point off the pace of the 2014-15 vintage that were league runners-up.
Not surprisingly, City will almost certainly finish the year as the league’s best passing team (85.4%), the best in possession (60.9%), and, depending on what happens on the final matchday, one of the most prolific, as they’ll figure anywhere from second to fifth in goals scored.
Individually, they’ll boast the league’s top assist man in Kevin DeBruyne and a top-five goal scorer in Sergio “On The Outs” Aguero, and while their defense wasn’t exactly airtight, the backline was good enough to lift them to the fourth-best goals against mark in the league.
It’s clear they (and everyone else) have been a step below Chelsea and Spurs this year – just look at the double-digit gap in goal differential from the top two to chasers City, Liverpool and Arsenal – but on the whole, it’s hard to look at their resume and say they aren’t worthy of Europe’s elite club competition.
Year Two of the Klopp Revolution on Merseyside hasn’t quite hit the heights that some of the Sons of Shankly would’ve hoped, but like City, you can’t deny this season’s been a major improvement from the one previous.
Like Manchester United this year, Liverpool chose to put less emphasis on the league towards the end of last season, instead shifting their focus on achieving Champions League qualification through a victory in the Europa League. The end result – a dismal second-half collapse in Basel to Sevilla in the UEL Final and a disappointing 8th-place league finish – left much to be desired.
This campaign, however, has seen the Reds play enough inspired football to erase the bad taste from 2015-16, scoring goals at will to overcome a leaky defense and gain the 70-point bracket for just the fourth time in the last 10 seasons.
The previous three LFC sides to hit that mark all finished in the top four, and three points Sunday would guarantee a continuation of that streak.
Along with a potent attack that’s hit or exceeded the four-goal mark in nearly one-sixth of their league matches this season, the biggest credit to the Reds has been their play against the upper echelon of the league. In 12 matches this year against sides currently in the Top Seven, LFC went undefeated, going 7-0-5 to earn 26 points of a possible 36, easily the best return of any team in the EPL. (For comparison’s sake, champions Chelsea went 7-4-1 against the Top Seven.)
By contrast, Klopp’s side was average against the mid-table sides, going 5-3-4 to garner just 19 points of a possible 36 against teams ranked 8th through 13th. Not many teams could have a six-match stretch that featured a loss at home to Swansea, a draw with Chelsea, a loss at Hull, a 2-0 shutout of Spurs, a 3-1 loss at Leicester and 3-1 defeat of Arsenal.
As Men in Blazers’ mouthpiece Roger Bennett aptly put it earlier this season, “Liverpool could win the Champions League, but they’d never make it out of the group stage.”
On the basis of worth, Liverpool have proven themselves to be good enough to go toe-to-toe with top clubs, but their maddening inconsistency against the lesser lights of the league leaves much to be desired.
With that in mind, it’s not out of the question the LFC could stumble in the season’s final day at home to already-relegated Middlesbrough, which would leave the UCL door open for…
By this point, what more can be said about this Arsenal season?
Off the field, “Wenger Out” transcended sports, with signs showing up at concerts, weddings and WrestleMania, while contract extensions for Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil went nowhere and became a constant source of distraction.
On the pitch, the Gunners predictably crashed out in the Champions League Round of 16 by a “humbling” 10-2 aggregate scoreline to Bayern Munich, but perhaps worse has been their subsequent failure to finish above North London rivals Tottenham for a 22nd consecutive season.
With St. Totteringham’s Day canceled and the potential for no fourth-place trophy to ease mounting criticism/hysteria against Arsene Wegner and American owner Stan Kroenke, it’s easy to write off this year as an unmitigated disaster at the Emirates.
But if you peel back the onion a little, there’s this: Arsenal have already accrued more points this season (72) than they did last season (71) when they finished second to Leicester City in the league title race.
(Let that sink in for a moment.)
In reality, the Gunners haven’t been as awful as Arsenal Fan TV might’ve led you to believe. They’ve reached another FA Cup Final, they’ve currently won as many league matches as City and one more than Liverpool, and they’ve also found their form when it’s mattered, winning six of their last seven in the EPL.
The biggest knock against their credentials is that gawd-awful record against the top clubs. Arsenal went 2-6-3 against Top Seven EPL opposition and were winless in four matches against elite clubs Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Instead, the Gunners made their hay both domestically and abroad – as they usually do – by beating the clubs categorically worse than them.
This year, Arsenal went 20-3-3 against Premier League sides currently sitting 8th through 20th. That amounts to 63 of their 72 league points, or 87.5%.
By comparison, Man City’s numbers aren’t much better, with 64 points of the Citizens’ 75 from the same cross-section of the EPL, but if you need a tiebreaker, you can probably guess who came out on top in the league meetings between Pep and Arsene this year.
(I’ll save you the suspense: City won 2-1 at the Etihad in December and drew 2-2 at the Emirates last month.)
Arsene Wenger’s history of producing Champions League-worthy clubs is well-documented, but with such a poor record against quality sides, it’s hard to make their case as worthy EPL participants again this year.
Barring a last-gasp stumble from either Man City or Liverpool, it’s likely the right teams will be representing England in Europe’s top competition next season, which – if you’re counting – starts 67 days from now.