So this is it. Ninety minutes away from finishing third, fourth or fifth. A win at West Brom and third is ours, along with automatic qualification for the group stage of the Champions League, irrespective of results elsewhere in the league, or in this year’s final. It would bring a happy end to an often difficult season, and of course herald the annual celebration of St Totteringham’s Day (and win me the bet I had with a work colleague when we were ten points behind them). The season could be closed down with a sense of relieved satisfaction, and we could plan for the next one knowing exactly where we stood.
I think we’re all in agreement that this is the best option. There are of course a few that believe the board need the wound of not qualifying for the Champions League to reassess, but I don’t buy that – if the powers that be within the club cannot see the issues we have, then nothing will make them. Wenger himself has been talking this week about our overreliance on Van Persie, and he has already made moves to release that burden with the signing of Podolski. Were we to guarantee ourselves the Champions League bonanza for another season, I would expect more to follow.
Where many disagree is what would be the best scenario were we to fail today. Most would plump for fourth, and hope that Bayern do us a favour by stopping Chelsea rendering fourth place meaningless. The logic of that argument is that a chance of Champions League football is better than no chance at all, and it is logic I can see and understand.
But I disagree, strongly, as I’ve spoken about before.
Many consider falling out of the Champions League as a bit of a doomsday scenario, and from a purely financial point of view, it would be a bitter blow – just look at Liverpool to see how far back it can set a club. But I think there is a worse scenario than finishing fifth (or fourth with Chelsea winning this year’s final) and knowing in May that you will be competing in the Europa League.
For me, the worst case is finishing fourth, facing a qualifier and then doing exactly what we did this season – waiting until late August to see whether we qualified or not, and planning to conduct our business in a late flurry based on our newly enhanced budget.
And then losing that qualifier, with only days left to paper over the cracks.
And for those who think this is an extremely unlikely situation, it isn’t. Since the changes Platini made to the Champions League qualification process, we would always be facing a decent team in that preliminary round, not the champions of Luxembourg. The draw is fixed that way these days. Quite what would have happened to our season had we lost to Udinese back in August (and that tie could have gone either way) does not bear thinking about. Would we have had the finances to sign the likes of Arteta, without whom we have yet to win a league game?
Put it this way – if we are to play in the Europa League next season, it would be better to find out in May, when we have three months to plan accordingly before the season starts, than in late August, when the season is already underway and we have mere days left of the transfer window. Not only that, but this season shows that even victory in that qualifying round doesn’t protect you from the hiccup of having to conduct your business so late in the day. A repeat of that risk is unlikely to be tolerated by many.
Fourth is seen as a holy grail by many in the Premiership and the majority of the media. But for me, third is the holy grail and fourth can be something of a poisoned chalice. Consider my perfect scenario for how this plays out – we win and finish third, Spurs finish fourth, Bayern win the Champions League and Spurs lose their qualifying round in August, and are sent into a tailspin by the setback. Chances are, Redknapp will already have spent the money they would get in the group stage. Assuming he is even still there.
That hilarious scenario is based on Spurs finishing fourth, not fifth. If they finish fifth, they will plan for the season ahead with adjusted expectations and budgets, but plenty of time. Perversely, that would be better for them.
One of these days, a club will take the gamble we took this year, waiting until late August before acting, and they will lose that gamble by getting knocked out. I don’t want that to be us.
I hope this is all moot, I really do – a win at West Brom guarantees that. Whatever happens – I want us to know where we stand at 5pm today, not August 28th.