Jurgen Klopp said it was “almost impossible” for Liverpool to reach the Champions League by the top four. They can join these late bloomers.
The Reds had a rare excellent weekend, beating Southampton while Leicester and West Ham both lost to leave Klopp and his men six points behind fourth with a game in hand. Might they emulate this lot?
“Kenny’s got no chance. It’s United to win it with Arsenal or Liverpool going for second place,” said manager of Wimbledon’s surprise title challengers, Joe Kinnear, having just been told that Newcastle boss Dalglish was not giving up the title race. Newcastle were 11 points off Manchester United at the summit but also – more pressingly – five behind a Liverpool team that inhabited second place and the only other Champions League qualification spot in 1997.
That was the first of three successive draws Newcastle recorded late in the season, salvaging a point against Sunderland before being held at Sheffield Wednesday. By April 13 the Magpies were in danger of falling away, two points behind Aston Villa and nine off both Liverpool and Arsenal, the Gunners second on goal difference. Newcastle beat Chelsea and Derby to close the gap and escaped from Highbury with a 1-0 win in early May, drawing games in hand at West Ham and Manchester United to head into a dramatic final day. Liverpool were two points ahead of both Newcastle and Arsenal but a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday let them in. Arsenal beat Derby but Newcastle hammered Nottingham Forest to go second on goal difference as all three clubs finished level on points.
Liverpool messed up by winning just one of their last five matches, while Arsenal were victorious in one of their final four. Newcastle claimed 14 points from 18 as Dalglish aimed for the moon and hit a Champions League qualification star.
A run of one win in six Premier League games muddied the Champions League qualification waters for a side that had been dumped out at the group stage by Barcelona and Gabriel Batistuta‘s Fiorentina in 2000. Defeat to Middlesbrough on March 12, either side of UEFA Cup knockout matches against Deportivo La Coruna and Werder Bremen, left Arsenal fifth in the Premier League and two points behind third-placed Chelsea, who occupied the last position to reach Europe’s top table. Liverpool were a point ahead of the Gunners in fourth with a game in hand.
The Gunners rallied to such an extent that they finished second behind runaway champions Manchester United. Arsenal started an eight-game winning run in the Premier League by beating Tottenham at Highbury as Liverpool picked up just two points from their final games to let a dominant position slip.
The Reds, seemingly unlike Leicester, learned from their mistakes the following season. Another case of progression in different competitions led to Liverpool having two games in hand on almost every team around them in April 2001, although drawing with and losing to direct Champions League qualification rivals in Ipswich and Leeds respectively allowed those familiar doubts to creep in.
It was Gary McAllister who sparked their revival with an unforgettable Merseyside derby free-kick winner at Goodison Park. Liverpool won six and drew one of their last seven games, all while adding the FA Cup and UEFA Cup to their earlier League Cup success as Champions League semi-finalists Leeds rather unfortunately missed out by a single point despite themselves winning eight of their last nine matches. It was Ipswich who stumbled, losing to mid-table Charlton and drawing with lowly Derby when two wins would have carried them through.
Four points with four games remaining seemed like a healthy enough lead for even Tottenham to hold over Arsenal. A 2-0 defeat to Manchester United on April 9, followed by a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth three days later, meant the Gunners had to prepare for an upcoming Champions League semi-final with Villarreal in the knowledge that their place in the following season’s competition was far from certain. Tottenham had control of their own fate and even room for error against Manchester United, Bolton and West Ham.
The misstep came against Sir Alex Ferguson’s distant runners-up, with a north London derby draw five days later keeping Tottenham four points in front of an Arsenal side that had a game in hand. Beat Bolton and West Ham and fourth place belonged to Martin Jol’s side regardless of what the Gunners could manage in their final three games. The Trotters were dispatched before a case of the trots allowed the Hammers to burst the bubble of their most bitter rivals. Arsenal beat Sunderland, Manchester City and Wigan to scrape into the top four for the first but most crucial time since late November.
‘For Arsenal, it can already be held up as Exhibit A why, barring a football miracle, they are going out of the Champions League. Yet it is also the fundamental reason why they are threatening to finish outside the qualification places for Europe’s top competition for the first time in 15 years.’
Daniel Taylor, writing for The Guardian, echoed the sentiments of most after Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-1 in March 2013. The Gunners had been soundly beaten by Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League not a fortnight earlier and defeat to Andre Villas-Boas’s Spurs meant the gap between them in third and Arsenal in fifth stood at seven points.
“We are on an upward spiral in terms of confidence and they are in a negative spiral in terms of results,” Villas-Boas said in the aftermath of that result. “To [get] out of that negative spiral is extremely difficult.” Yet Arsenal showed signs of life by scaring Bayern with a 2-0 win in Munich to be eliminated only on away goals, while escaping that “negative spiral” with eight victories and two draws from their final 10 league games. Tottenham’s “upward spiral” garnered 18 points from a possible 30 and Gareth Bale’s best efforts could only deliver fifth place.
Manchester United 2019/20
The 2019/20 Premier League season lasted 353 days. For just 24 of those (6.8%), Manchester United occupied a Champions League qualification place and they still finished third with a four-point advantage over fifth. An unbeaten post-restart burst was only half the mission; Leicester took care of the rest.
After a 1-1 draw with Wolves last February, Manchester United were behind Sheffield United and stuttering. By the time the Premier League was paused, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had climbed that particular mountain, although the Blades were two points behind with a game in hand. Manchester United had to overhaul a three-point gap to Chelsea in fourth, while the eight-point chasm to Leicester with nine matches remaining was barely worth considering. Yet six wins and three draws in just over five weeks put Manchester United ahead of both Chelsea and Leicester, whose late-season collapse saw them collect nine points from a possible 27, culminating in a home defeat to the Red Devils on the final day.