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On Top Four Races and Self-Inflicted Wounds

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Some would like to believe there’s still a race between Liverpool and Manchester United for the top four. There isn’t one. The good news is a Champions League place seems there for the taking almost every year.

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Some in the media have suggested that, with three games to go and only four points separating them in the table, there’s still a race between Manchester United and Liverpool for the final Champions League place. Some Liverpool fans, too, have taken to suggesting a top four finish remains possible. It’s easy to forgive fans hoping for the unlikely—it is, after all, part of being one—and Manchester United are certainly doing their best to make things appear interesting.

Realistically, though, it's a race that's well over. Realistically, what Manchester United are doing—stumbling against West Bromwich Albion over the weekend just as Liverpool had against the Baggies and Hull City in recent weeks—is only providing the appearance of a top four race. Things may look close, and four points may not appear insurmountable at a glance, but take more than just a glance and United appear more to be taunting Liverpool and the club’s recent struggles than providing a genuine opening.

A big stumbling block for Liverpool's hopes is goal differential, which is the first tiebreaker should the sides finish level on points. United are +24, while Liverpool are only +11, meaning there would need to be at least a 13 goal swing over the final three games for Liverpool to have a chance at the top four by simply making up that four point gap. Failing that, Liverpool have to do five points better than their rivals from Manchester. And five points, no matter that you can count to it on one hand, is an awfully big gap.

Five points means that if Liverpool win their final three matches—at Chelsea and Stoke and at home to Crystal Palace—United would need either two losses or a loss and two draws from their remaining three—home to Palace and Hull City and away to Arsenal—for it to matter. Simulate those six ties a million times and certainly a handful will end up going Liverpool’s way. Enough even for fans to hold out hope of an unlikely, miraculous finish to the season that sees Liverpool leapfrog United into the top four.

It’s either disingenuous or foolish, though, to suggest it adds up to a top four race. Even having won the league, Chelsea at the Bridge aren’t about to roll over and hand Liverpool the points. And even with a win over the weekend against QPR, on recent form the Reds hardly look likely to take maximum points in their other matches. Four points to, at most, seven if Chelsea are in a celebratory mood and forget a football match has been scheduled seems likeliest, and that won’t be enough to overtake United.

Many in recent weeks have been quick to point to Liverpool having the fifth highest payroll to explain why they are where they are in the table right now; to suggest missing out on the top four really isn’t all that bad. Anyone being honest, though, and who has watched the season unfold—seen the mistakes, the largely self-inflicted struggles over the past two months and to start the season—knows Liverpool could have, perhaps even should have, been entering the final weeks firmly in the top four.

This isn’t a Liverpool side missing out because four other sides have spent more. This isn’t a Liverpool side missing out because deeper pockets beat them to the Champions League before the season even kicked off. This is a Liverpool side missing out because they’ve dropped too many points that the league’s fifth highest paid squad should reasonably have been expected to have taken. They’re missing out because of transfer mistakes compounded by tactical and personnel stubbornness.

The comforting thing for Liverpool fans, perhaps, is that while they’ve missed out on the top four in five of the last six seasons, in each of those seasons the situation has seemed much the same. Some fans look at United today and imagine that next season they will be better and cracking the top four even harder. They look at City’s deep pockets and assume they will improve. That Arsenal and Chelsea will continue on their unassailable ways, albeit with the former always a step behind the latter.

Yet each time Liverpool have missed out on the top four of late, fans have looked up the table and grumbled because a top four, Champions League finish seemed there for the taking if only Liverpool hadn’t screwed things up on quite so many occasions. Every year has had its equivalents to a September loss to Aston Villa or a crushing late strike by Everton or embarrassing defeats to Crystal Palace or Hull City. Every year has had its bizarre personnel choices and failed transfers.

And every year it has been those issues, not the unassailable exceptionalism of the sides that finished above them in the final table, keeping Liverpool out of the top four. Which means that even if Liverpool don’t pull off a miraculous finish to the season and somehow leapfrog United, chances are the top four will still be there for the taking next season, even if the Reds don’t have quite as much to spend. At least if Liverpool themselves can find a way to not screw things up quite so often.