x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Go fourth and really prosper

That final Champions League spot can be crucial to a club's successes. Richard Jolly looks at the Premier League quartet in with a chance.

Arsenal's Robin van Persie could miss out on Champions League football next term.  Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Arsenal's Robin van Persie could miss out on Champions League football next term. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Fourth is the new first. It does not carry the same cachet, the tag of being the best and the medals to show for supremacy, but it brings rewards of its own.

They can be measured in the hard currency of money as well as in a status others covet.

Fourth, at least as far as the Premier League is concerned, means Champions League football. Or it does if an August play-off is negotiated, anyway.

A price can be put on fourth, one that an economist like Arsene Wenger will appreciate. Last season Arsenal earned £27.1 million (Dh158.5m) from Uefa for their participation in the Champions League. They did not even reach the quarter-finals.

As Arsenal know, consistent qualification for the knockout stages can be highly lucrative.

And now a valuable revenue stream is in danger of drying up.

While the Manchester clubs battle for the title and Tottenham Hotspur have a comfortable cushion in third place, Arsenal are in a four-way race for fourth place.

By the slightest of margins - goals scored - they are its leader, fractionally ahead of Chelsea, followed by Newcastle United, with Liverpool looking to accelerate beyond all in the season's final straight.

Liverpool host Arsenal today, one of a series of battles within a battle. On March 12, it is Arsenal against Newcastle. On April 1, Liverpool travel to Tyneside. Thirteen days later, Newcastle visit Stamford Bridge. Chelsea visit Arsenal the following week before a May trip to Anfield.

Each is bona fide six-pointer with the potential to position the victors for the Champions League millions and to grant the losers the booby prize of Europa League qualification.

It is the outcome of a shift in the pecking order. By advancing, City and Tottenham will dislodge at least two of the clubs who were Champions League finalists in four successive seasons.

Liverpool were winners in 2005 and runners-up in 2007, Arsenal beaten by Barcelona in the 2006 showpiece and Chelsea a penalty kick away from lifting the trophy in 2008.

Only Newcastle did not start out with the stated aim of finishing in the top four, which may give the underdogs a psychological advantage in the run in. Others should be rather more stressed.

In Liverpool's case, expectation is conferred by historic achievement and recent expenditure.

The £115m Kenny Dalglish was permitted to spend was designed to propel Liverpool back into the European elite, not to ensure an expensive action replay of the past two seasons, which ended with them seventh and sixth respectively.

For Arsenal, starved of silverware, this is their preferred honour. "The first trophy is to finish in the top four," Wenger said. Having done so in the past 14 seasons, it is a quest for validation for him, a crusade for the magnificent Robin van Persie, who is searching for a 30th club goal of the campaign at Anfield.

He provided some of the inspiration in the 5-2 win over Tottenham last Sunday on an afternoon that doubled up as the best day of both Arsenal and Liverpool's season as the Reds' six-year wait for silverware ended in the Carling Cup final.

If both could be brimming with confidence, it is also an encounter where their season-long failings epitomise the flawed candidatures for fourth.

Only three sides have scored fewer goals at home than Liverpool; only three have conceded more on the road than Arsenal. It is resistible force against moveable object, and each side may be further depleted today with the Arsenal midfielders Aaron Ramsey out while his Liverpool counterpart Steven Gerrard struggles with a hamstring injury.

The Liverpool centre-back Daniel Agger has been ruled out for a month with a fractured rib but their loss could pale in comparison with Arsenal's if a groin problem sidelines the prolific Van Persie.

He is the single most important player in this mini-league, Chelsea its most tormented club.

The Champions League has long taken on the status of the be all and end all for them.

A failure to win it has cost previous managers their jobs. A failure to qualify for it would result in the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas; so, too, might an exit in the last 16 to Napoli. The pressure is greatest at Stamford Bridge.

Newcastle have a different type of anxiety. Sunday pits them against Sunderland, a derby that can obscure the bigger picture.

Now the rhetoric in the north-east is all about the local rivalry. Last month, however, Alan Pardew reflected upon the platform his side have created for themselves. "It's a great opportunity," he said.

"Hopefully we can achieve something special."

For others, it is something normal, but something that boosts the bank balance and the self-esteem, gives them pulling power in the transfer market and an enviable standing. Such are the prizes fourth place provides.

sports@thenational.ae