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Fourth is where the fun's at - Yahoo! Eurosport UK (blog)

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Fourth is where the fun's at - Yahoo! Eurosport UK (blog)
Apr 10th 2012, 08:04

Hatem Ben Arfa and Frank LampardOn Monday, Early Doors made the big, controversial call of announcing that the Premier League title race is all but over after Manchester United opened up an eight-point gap over Manchester City at the top of the table.

This morning, ED will go out on a limb once more by happily declaring the battle for the final Champions League place well and truly on — as west coast rapper Ice Cube put it so eloquently almost 20 years ago — like Donkey Kong. There, it's been said.

Newcastle's win over Bolton - claimed via a goal of the season contender from Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse's 10th goal in just nine games for the club - has drawn the Magpies level with fourth-placed Tottenham, who lost at home to Norwich.

Chelsea failed to join the party on the 59-point mark following their 1-1 draw at Fulham, but they also remain very much in the mix with five games of the season remaining. Unless, of course, the Blues win the Champions League by beating Barcelona and either Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, cruelly rendering fourth place a Europa League spot. ED would rather stick this month's rent on the lamest nag at this weekend's Grand National than that happening, however.

Sat above that aforementioned trio are Arsenal, whose win over Manchester City on Sunday leaves them two points clear in third. The Gunners play their game in hand tomorrow evening, and will then play twice more in the competition before either Spurs or Newcastle are next in league action. If Arsenal win their next three games (against Wolves, Wigan and Chelsea) they will be 11 points clear of the chasing pack by the time any of them are due to play next.

As is often the case, it looks as though it is the scrap for the final Champions League berth which will provide the thrills in the top half of the table come the end of the season rather than the title race.

Man City need to contrive a swing of at least eight points between them and United with just 18 left to play for, a tall order made more arduous by their complete loss of mojo at just the wrong time.

Only twice in the last decade have the winners of the title finished within three points of their closest rivals. Chelsea's most recent win came after they finished a point above United in 2009-10. Two years previously the Red Devils had pipped the Blues to the league by two points, shortly before they beat in the Champions League final by the width of a Moscow goalpost.

Over the same period, the gap between the team which has finished in the play-off spot for the Champions League and their nearest rival has been three points or fewer on four occasions.

On the final day of the 2002-03 campaign, Jesper Gronkjaer's goal sealed a 2-1 win for Chelsea over Liverpool, seeing the Blues finish fourth at the Reds' expense and, as legend would have it, convincing Roman Abramovich to buy the club.

In 2005 Everton finished fourth above Liverpool by three points only to fall to Villarreal at the play-off stage. The Toffees fate was made all the more galling by their local rivals being allowed to re-enter the competition as defending champions, albeit by starting their campaign in July. The following year, Arsenal overtook Tottenham on the final day of the season by beating Wigan in their last ever game at Highbury to claim fourth spot, while Spurs were left as upset as their players' stomachs after a bout of food poisoning contributed to their defeat to West Ham.

Tottenham would eventually make the top four in 2010, when they finished three points above Man City thanks in no small part to an away win for the Londoners in their penultimate match of the season.

The whole concept of a team in any sport being rewarded for finishing fourth may be inherently flawed, especially when that reward is the opportunity to be crowned the best in Europe the following season, but there is no denying that the play-off spot has regularly injected some much-needed jeopardy into the latter stages of many campaigns.

Rather than the teams in the top half who are way off the title coasting through to the end of the season, at least there is extra motivation for them to keep plugging away and give their fans their money's worth.

If Arsenal so manage to extend their lead over the teams immediately below them into double figures, then we are set for a three-way fight for fourth. However, should the Gunners embark on one of their regular self-destruction missions then we could be set for an almighty European scrap.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I'm really sorry for what happened and for the disappointment I've caused Manchester City, and particularly to Roberto Mancini, whom I respect and whom I love. I would like very much to play for the national team, but I committed two fouls - they were not reaction fouls. I have not broken [Cesare Prandelli's] code of ethics. I have already missed out on the national team for one stupid thing - I will not do it a second time. Regarding my future, we will see at the end of the season. I will talk with the club and we'll see." — Mario Balotelli apologises for his red card in City's defeat at Arsenal in the hope that it will not affect his international chances this summer.

FOREIGN VIEW: Let's give Montpellier the best chance possible and stop PSG becoming champions this year. Let's let Montpellier win, let's not forget the lessons of history!" - South Winners 87, Marseille's biggest supporters group, have called upon their team to lose against Ligue 1 title challengers Montpellier so that bitter rivals Paris St Germain don't claim the title.

COMING UP: Plenty of live football action for you this evening, with Blackburn Rovers v Liverpool and Barcelona v Getafe both kicking off at 20:00, shortly after Chievo v AC Milan and two clashes in the Championship — Portsmouth v Millwall and Brighton v Reading — get underway at 19:45.

Paul Parker will be giving his verdict on the Easter weekend action, and there will also be the latest update on the Euro Club Index.

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