Columnist

Pat Nevin: Par for the course?

Trying to make sense of how ‘the race for the top four’ is panning in the final straight for the four teams involved takes some doing, but as he writes in this week’s column, Pat Nevin has noticed it might not be that much different from usual…


I’ll admit it, I am confused. All normal common sense has gone out the window in this last part of the season. Someone asked me the other day to explain what was going on in the race for the third and fourth spot in the Premier league and who I think will secure those places in the end. I reckon it would be easier to explain the current Brexit debate in the UK and then guess what the outcome is going to be in six months’ time.

Okay, so maybe just a little bit of an exaggeration there but really what on earth is happening? The only result I had a fair level of confidence in over at the weekend was that we would get a draw against Manchester United. Was this negativity on my part or a belief that both teams are so evenly matched they could not be separated? No it wasn’t, I just thought that after Arsenal’s latest capitulation, this time at Leicester, and Spurs imploding against West Ham, what is the result that would give us absolutely no clarity on the situation? The answer was the draw and as such, that is exactly what we were going to get. I was even bold enough to say it before the game on BBC radio.
 

As the Blues fans streamed out of Old Trafford however, there was a slow realisation that there is actually one thing to hold on to that looked pretty unlikely just a few weeks ago. With only two games to go in the Premier League season our Champions League future is entirely in our own hands. Two wins and it is definitely mission accomplished, even if United and Arsenal win their last two games 25-0!

Had you given me and many other Chelsea fans this scenario at the beginning of a season that was clearly going to be transitional and difficult, I think the majority of us would have taken it. Not that these are easy games, with Leicester in particular having a fair-to-middling run of form at the moment. Their form isn’t actually better than fair, their home loss to Newcastle proving that point, but in simple terms having to beat Watford and Leicester to get Champions League football, I’ll have some of that.

The United game itself at the weekend had a whole bunch of stories waiting to happen, former Chelsea man Romelu Lukaku seemed the likely player to break Chelsea hearts but of course that would have been far too obvious. Instead it had to be the much-loved Juan Mata, our former two-time Player of the Year and far less regular scorer who went on to break the deadlock.
 

You can’t write this stuff, as a few months ago who was the player least likely to let Man United down and throw us a lifeline? That would be their regular Player of the Year David De Gea of course. Cue the Spaniard spilling Toni Rudiger’s speculative effort. It is all too bizarre.

Marcos Alonso scoring was a difficult moment for him in some ways and an unlikely scorer. Alonso has had a difficult season and considering the abuse he was getting at Old Trafford, there must have been a huge temptation to turn to the United supporters and react when he scored. Fortunately he kept his cool and headed off to the Chelsea fans instead.
 

'At the beginning of the season people were asking me who I thought would finish in the top four. I thought it was difficult then, but how can you predict anything when this chaos is going on.'

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

Arsenal have managed to pick up three points from the last 15 in the league and those were three very lucky points against Watford. They have shipped nine goals in three games that most people expected them to win. Spurs have managed to garner only 10 points from their last 30 available to them while we have bagged 18 in the same 10 games. We have only got two points from the last nine so shouldn’t crow too much, but it is incredible to watch! United have had their own post Ole contract-signing slump as well to contend with, so no one is safe.

Is it nerves, is it tiredness from the strains of going deep into European competitions, is it a collective hangover from a post-World Cup season? It could be all of these things in part along with new managers in situ but I would not expect the same level of madness in a normal season, so surely there is something different going on here.

Or is there? In the last four seasons the average points total for the fourth place team was exactly 75 points. If Spurs win their last two games they will have 76 points. That spoils the theory that these teams are having terrible seasons, there isn’t a huge difference there. The team finishing sixth in the last four years has had an average of 64.25 points, if United win their last two games they will have 71 points!

Read: The Race for the Top Four

So the teams may look worse, but in actual fact it has been more about the unusual dips near the end of the season than anything else from the top sides that has been notable, with the exception of Liverpool and Man City. They aren’t feeling it in the same way, but their projects are further down the line and maybe that has saved them this time to some degree. Their incredible and unheard of level of consistency as a duo makes the problems of those beneath look that much worse, but that level of points by two sides in the same season has never happened in England before.

So perspective is needed which will not really be available until the end of the season. Eintracht Frankfurt face us on Thursday and Baku now seems almost within touching distance. The top-four place now in our own hands with only two games to go and the points tally par for the course for a top-four side. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth including mine, this season could still be bathed in a rather warm glow come the end of May.
 

Am I willing to make a prediction about what is going to happen in these last few games? There is absolutely no chance of me going there. I would rather try to guess the name of the next British Prime Minister, when he or she will be in place and whether he or she thinks being part of Europe is a good idea. All jokes about British teams trying to get out of Europe have already been done so I am not going there either.

Right now though, Chelsea still have two fabulous chances for a Champions League adventure next season, that’s one thing at least that we all agree on would be a good foreign policy.
 

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