This Champions League race is a sprinting marathon…

Date published: Tuesday 2nd January 2018 10:17

You would never expect Arsenal fans to argue so vociferously that their manager should be given more credit after campaigning for his exit in ever-increasing numbers over the last five years. And yet our list of the top ten Premier League managers of 2017 did not spark serious criticism from anybody but Gunners arguing that Arsene Wenger should have been included ahead of, well, anybody who had not won a trophy.

That the managers of the five clubs in the Champions League were included was no coincidence; they had hit their minimum target for the season. Wenger was omitted because he had not only failed but is on course to fail again. And it will absolutely be a failure for the Frenchman, for Jurgen Klopp, for Mauricio Pochettino, for Jose Mourinho or for Antonio Conte if any of that quintet do not claim a Champions League place for next season.

This season there is no transition leeway for new managers, no longevity leeway for one very old manager, no poverty leeway for managers with smaller budgets. The top four from last season have no excuse for going backwards and those who missed out have no excuse for failing to recover. This is real. This is massive. This is going to be bloody brilliant for those of us without a vested interest.

Should Arsenal beat Chelsea on Wednesday night and Spurs beat West Ham on Thursday, there will be just six points separating second and sixth. If you are thinking that sounds like rather a lot and Manchester United are surely not part of any scramble, keep in mind that at the same stage of last season, it was Arsenal who headed a six-point spread. Manchester City aside, we have a top six that could conceivably finish in any order. And the managers finishing in fifth and sixth – assuming there is no safety net from European triumph – are facing very dark days indeed.

You might think that Pochettino – with the smallest wage bill in that top six – would be under the least amount of pressure, especially with Liverpool committing to a £75m mid-season signing, but the flip side to Tottenham’s relative poverty is that they have a team full of players desperate to keep playing Champions League football but without the astronomical wages to persuade them to stay regardless. Would this Spurs team survive relegation to the Europa League now?

Which is why it was absolutely vital that Tottenham won at Swansea on Tuesday night, and they will not care a jot that it was scrappy, that one goal was offside, that they should have had Davinson Sanchez sent off or that Swansea probably deserved at least a point from their second-half rally. All that matters is that they have pulled themselves back into the group – four points behind fourth with a very winnable game in hand to come on Thursday. That they could almost rest an ill Harry Kane is a welcome bonus, as is the unexpected return of Victor Wanyama.

Every single game now has consequences. Every single game now offers potential jeopardy. Every single manager in that top six cannot afford to be the fifth or sixth horses in this compelling race.

Sarah Winterburn


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