The Race for the Champions League: A Re-imagining

TFN debutant Will Magee re-imagines the top four and the race for the Champions League…

Do you like football? Any football at all? Then the chances are you’ve read several astoundingly reprocessed ‘top-four race’ pieces in the last few weeks. These articles are the reanimated undead of the Premier League season, the phantoms that plague the minds of hungover sport writers, the ghosts at the top-flight feast; they appear every year at exactly the same time to remind us that our lives are, essentially, hauntingly repetitive – and that Arsenal will most likely finish fourth.

The prediction for this year goes like this: Chelsea in first, Manchester City in second, two of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool in the lesser Champions League spots. It’s really no more complicated than that. A maverick journalist will throw Tottenham into the mix every once in a while in an attempt to break the cycle, but do so with the poignant knowledge that this is totally, utterly futile – a puny act of rebellion in an uncaring existential void. Likewise, somebody will always root for a rank outsider, the last hope of escaping his or her recurring top-four nightmare. This never comes off, and said somebody is quickly institutionalised.

Still, at the risk of my own mental wellbeing, I fancy making an attempt at exorcising the eerie persistence of the ‘top-four race’ article and re-imagine the entire thing. Despite our numbing collective awareness that it will never be so, what clubs would we actually like to see finish in those coveted Premier League places? And in what precise order? Let’s settle down, hold onto our minds, disregard those creepy voices telling us to do terrible violence against the ones we love – and bloody well find out.

1st – Southampton

Surely, surely Ronald Koeman must win the Manager of the Season award. He has singlehandedly proven that it’s possible to sell almost all of your best players, replace them with a load of dudes from the Dutch Eredivisie and then not only avoid instant relegation, but actually challenge at the very top of the Premier League. He’s done it with style and good grace, eschewing managerial bickering (even with José Mourinho!) and distancing himself from mischievous links to Barcelona with the fastidious scrupulousness that all those who played for Holland at Euro ’88 have become famed for. Plus, he has a really sharp haircut. Cool side parting, bro.

If there are some who might disagree with my claim that Koeman is this season’s best manager, nobody can quibble that Southampton have the league’s meanest defence. They have conceded only 21 times this season; Chelsea, United and City have conceded 23, 26 and 28 goals respectively. To put it another way, the Saints have shipped a stingy 0.7 goals a game. Little wonder, then, that Koeman’s side have kept a league-highest 14 clean sheets; they’ve kept their opponents out in almost half the games they’ve played. Their hulking mammoth of a goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, has been crucial in this; the vast, prehistoric tailbone at the end of a formidable team spine (also including the impressive Morgan Schneiderlin, Victor Wanyama, Toby Alderweireld and Jose Fonte), he’s arguably become the top flight’s best goalkeeper, too.

If things had only been slightly more consistent at the other end of the pitch – who knows? – Southampton could have reached the summit by now. Koeman’s cohort may have lost ground on the top four in reality but, by god, they’ve won our hearts; consequently, for a sweet and fleeting moment, let’s just dream of the all-round delight were they actually to finish top.

2nd – West Ham

When George Osborne murmured sibilantly about presiding over a ‘northern powerhouse’ in Britain, he was really fantasising about Big Sam. The man with the powerful Dudley brogue has been up to his old off-field tricks this season, smashing out more newspaper columns than your average staff writer while also managing to wind Louis van Gaal up to the point that the United manager forced a drudging intern to produce a dossier of suspect statistics for him like he was – well, George Osborne.

As well as writing stuff and upsetting people, Big Sam has shaped West Ham into a decent team. Asked to sanction attacking football this season by owners and fans alike, he’s duly obliged; Diafra Sakho, Enner Valencia and even the much-maligned Stewart Downing have combined well up front for the Hammers, while Aaron Creswell and Carl Jenkinson have garnered plenty of praise as aggressive full backs. The defence as a whole has naturally suffered a little bit from this relatively novel on-field approach, only keeping 7 clean sheets since the start of their campaign. Nevertheless, on course for a top-ten finish, it’s been a good one for the Claret & Blues. Marker-pen protests are a thing of the past in East London, while Russell Brand keeps bursting into player interviews to tongue people with euphoric abandon. Something must be going right.

Imagine, though, that it had all gone righter. That the defence had remained tight enough for a top-four push. That the attack had been even more effective. That, having watched his side go on a ten-match unbeaten run before battering his old club Newcastle 12-0 at St James’ Park, Big Sam had torn off his sweat-stained shirt, whirled it round his head in righteous fury and then hurled it out of the stadium before tackling John Carver to the floor and nipple-crippling him mercilessly for a good ten minutes. Imagine if a second-placed finish elevated Sam to a higher plane, if he proceeded to manage Internazionale, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea – winning yearly trophies with each, as he once predicted. Imagine the pride for the people of Dudley. Imagine.

3rd – Crystal Palace

When Crystal Palace said goodbye to Tony Pulis at the beginning of the season – I won’t lie – I was heartbroken. It wasn’t that he’d saved them from relegation so emphatically last year. It wasn’t even that I missed the comforting sound of his enraged screams resonating up and down the nation’s touchlines. Rather, it was that I’d booked 90s rapper KRS-One for an old-school hip-hop night I was planning in Croydon and that, in the light of this managerial departure, my ‘Sound of the Pulis’ theme was no longer current. Thousands of fully tracksuited, bespectacled punters downed their baseball caps and bailed. I was left broken. I felt betrayed.

Neil Warnock came and went before I could recover and, just like that, Alan Pardew was in the Selhurst Park hot seat. In my post-Pulis bitterness, I could’ve been forgiven for hoping this appointment would spell disaster for the club. Far from it, the Eagles have soared since.

Since Pardew arrived, Palace have won 8 out of their 13 fixtures to see themselves safely away from the relegation zone; in this time, they have also increased their scoring rate considerably – wide men Yannick Bolassie and Wilfried Zaha have been in top-four form, while veteran striker Glenn Murray has been entirely rejuvenated by the new, attack-minded system. It makes you think, what would have happened had Pardew come to the club earlier? Would Palace have winged their way to third? The reality: almost certainly not, no. The fantasy: Alan Pardew riding a giant eagle over south London in celebration, his body heaving with sobs of pure elation.

4th – Arsenal

Fantasy is all well and good, but let’s not overdo it.

Will also writes at @TheLuxuryFan

@W_F_Magee; @The_False_Nine

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