What does Europa League qualification mean for those involved?
The top four and bottom two places are already decided, but there's still plenty to play for in the Premier League this Sunday. Hull and Newcastle will desperately fight to preserve their top-flight status while Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton compete for the final two guaranteed Europa League qualification spots of fifth and sixth.
There aren't many things in English football as widely maligned as Europe’s secondary club competition. The Thursday-Sunday schedule is dreaded up and down the country, with the potential for injuries and fatigue, increased travel and divided focus adjudged to outweigh any possible benefits.
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In its current format, the Europa League is viewed as long-winded and convoluted. It lasts for almost an entire year: the qualifiers begin in late June or early July and the final isn't until the end of May. The group stages are something of a laborious slog: with the western European leagues having the higher coefficients, Europa destinations can be as far as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and eastern Russia, while the later arrival of eight fallen Champions League sides doesn't so much add interest as increases the perception of a cluttered and incoherent mishmash.
Furthermore, the evidence suggests there's truth in the argument that the Europa League adversely affects domestic form. Over the last 10 completed seasons, 23 of the 30 English sides to qualify for the tournament through either their league standing or the cup competitions have failed to improve their Premier League position.
There are, however, also plenty of positives to lift the doom for Liverpool, Tottenham, Southampton and West Ham fans - notwithstanding a spate of ill-discipline against Newcastle at St James' Park in Sunday's finale, the Hammers will gain entry to the competition via the Fair Play standings...
5) Liverpool (62 pts, +9)
Given that they sold Luis Suarez to Barcelona and lost Daniel Sturridge to injury for most of the year, it hasn't been a completely disastrous season for the Reds. Their showing in the Champions League was probably the biggest disappointment of all, with dropped points against Basel and Ludogorets leading to a group stage exit. After playing just 43 games last term, Liverpool struggled to balance the demands of two competitions this time around; Europa League football next season, then, would provide more experience for dealing with the concurrent fight on twin fronts.
The carrot of automatic Champions League entry for the winners is an attractive proposition, too, particularly as top-four rivals Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City are all expected to strengthen over the summer, while Brendan Rodgers may be grateful of the extra opportunity to land his first trophy at the club. On the flip side, Liverpool could be better off putting all their focus on the Premier League. Their squad depth is relatively poor and they aren't currently robust enough to deal with a more congested fixture list. If Raheem Sterling – arguably their key player – gets his way and departs Anfield in the coming months, that will only become even more pertinent.
6) Tottenham (61 pts, +4)
As with Liverpool, Spurs’ best route into the Champions League might be by winning its younger brother. If Mauricio Pochettino decides against mounting a challenge for the trophy and instead relegates the Europa League to a clear No.2 in his list of priorities, it would at least allow those on the fringes of Tottenham’s bloated squad some valuable playing time.
The Europa League, though, has lost most of its lustre in this part of north London, Spurs having competed in it in six of the last eight seasons. Notably, during that period the only season in which they reached the Champions League was 2009/10 – their solitary Europe-free campaign.
(And the 2011/12 campaign, in which Spurs also finished fourth but were denied entry to the Champions League because Chelsea won it, was the only time Tottenham had gone out in the Europa groups.)
This year, Spurs lost five Premier League games that directly followed Europa League fixtures, including winnable clashes at home to Stoke, West Brom and Newcastle.
Many of the club’s supporters might favour a one-game-a-week assault on the top four next term, but realistically they're not good enough for Champions League football right now.
7) Southampton (60 points, +23)
Unlike Liverpool and Tottenham, Southampton don't harbour realistic long-term ambitions of becoming Champions League regulars. The Europa League is thus a different proposition for Ronald Koeman’s side: an exciting step into the unknown that could help the club’s growth on and off the field.
The primary reason for that potential progression is the boost European football gives to Saints’ chances of enticing a higher calibre of player to the south coast. The Europa League is a big deal to many on the continent and Southampton can use that as a chief negotiation tool this summer.
Moreover, as Middlesbrough and Fulham demonstrated by finishing as runners-up in 2006 and 2010 respectively, the tournament can represent a glamorous adventure for sides unaccustomed to European competition, leading to magical nights and unforgettable victories over giants like Roma and Juventus. The opportunity to create similar memories of their own is worth the risk of a slight drop down the table.
West Ham (Fair Play)
England, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands were all awarded an extra qualification place by UEFA, and Sam Allardyce’s side are currently the best-behaved side not in contention for a top-six place (only Liverpool, already in the thick of it, have slightly better manners).
While some fans may be enthralled by the romantics, hard-headed Hammers won't enjoy beginning their qualifying campaign on July 2. And given that it's paramount West Ham survive in the top flight next season ahead of their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016/17, they would appear better off out of the Europa League. Barring a card frenzy at Newcastle, that now appears unlikely.
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With Arsenal heavy favourites to defeat Aston Villa in the FA Cup final (and the Wembley runners-up no longer getting a Europa slot by default if their conquerors are in the Champions League), the likelihood is that fifth, sixth and seventh will all be Europa League qualification spots, meaning England will have four representatives from the start for the first time in four years.
It will be interesting to see how seriously they take the competition. Chelsea’s triumph in 2013, and Fulham and Middlesbrough’s runs to the final in previous years have not seemed to alter the English perception of the Europa League as an intrusive nuisance. As Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton do battle for the final two guaranteed spots in next year’s edition, it's to be hoped that their managers recognise the benefits too.