On Wednesday night half of North London rejoiced, finally the big four had been broken, at last Tottenham had reached the pinnacle of European competition. If they finish fourth on Sunday, which seems the likely outcome, this euphoria is rather premature. If Arsenal get at least a point at home to a Fulham side who will have their eyes firmly set on their Europa League final the following Wednesday then spurs will need to break records to finish third and avoid having to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.
Before Michel Platini decided that the Champions League should be for Champions this stage of the competition would have been a much simpler affair. Tottenham may have been seeded against the Finnish or Slovakian champions, instead they will enter the perilous depths of an unseeded draw.
Lower placed banana skins
Looking around Europe as championships across the continent are drawing to a close there are plenty of banana skins for Harry Redknapp’s men to slip on. Some of the bigger sides who we will expect to come through from the third qualifying round include the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg, Celtic, Dynamo Kyiv, Ajax and most likely Sporting Braga.
Ajax have been rather unfortunate to only have finished runners-up in the Eredivisie, they finished just 1 point behind Steve McClaren’s FC Twente side. They have been on fire this season scoring 106 goals and conceding a paltry 20 only 4 of which have been let in at home. Going to Amsterdam to face a front line including Marco Pantelic and Luis Suarez and midfielder bruiser Demy de Zeeuw could be a difficult proposition despite Ajax’s poor showing in the Europa League in the season just gone.
The biggest positive about having to face one of these sides is that despite their good league form, the leagues themselves are of a poor general standard. For example, in Portugal the gap between 1st place and 4th going into the final game this weekend is almost 30 points. These sides do not face quality opposition on a weekly basis and so we mustn’t blow statistics such as Ajax’s goal difference out of proportion and out of context.
Play off round
Many of the sides mentioned above will still be expected to progress to the play off round. Together with Tottenham and best placed teams from Europe’s big 5 they will play off to enter the group stage. All 5 of these positions are yet to be decided with stiff competition still in place in most of these top leagues.
In France Ligue 1 has 2 more rounds to go, but as it stands the 3rd placed qualifier could be one of Lille, Auxerre, Lyon or Montpellier. We have seen Lyon do very well in the competition this season and it appears their league form has suffered due to this. Lille made life difficult for Liverpool earlier on this season so are no pushovers themselves. Montpellier were promoted last season from Ligue 2 and a Champions League place would be an astonishing achievement.
The race for 4th in La Liga is a straight two horse race over the last 2 games between Seville and RCD Mallorca. Sevilla are the incumbent at the moment but will host Barcelona tonight while Mallorca make the long trip to La Coruna before hosting Espanyol, who should be safe, in their final game. Seville have form in Europe and would provide tough opposition.
In Germany, Werder Bremen seem the most likely to take third spot with Leverkusen completely off the boil after their 24 match unbeaten run earlier this season. Italy appear to be offering the strongest opposition in the draw, one of Palermo, Sampdoria or even Milan who have fallen away toward the end of the season.
In August 2005 Everton found themselves in exactly the same position as Tottenham do now. They were drawn against Villarreal losing 2-1 in both legs and 4-2 on aggregate. The goals that put Everton to the sword were scored by Luciano Figueroa (2), Diego Forlan and Juan Pablo Sorin. The next morning Everton still had European football to look forward to in the form of the Uefa cup but this must have been a bitter pill to swallow after pipping rivals Liverpool to 4th spot.