Either West Ham or Manchester United will be England’s Conference League representative next season – to begin with, anyway, we could yet see some Leicester-style Europa League dropout join them. Clearly it will be funnier if it’s Manchester United so let’s really hope it is.
Here’s how that could happen, and who could be joining the Hammers or United in what is already firmly established as the best European competition? It’s clearer in some countries than others, but here’s how the qualification picture currently looks across Europe’s 10 top-ranked countries. Eighth-ranked Russia get no places for obvious reasons, which means newly restored European powerhouses Scotland sneak in to this round-up…
Places: One – 7th in Premier League
In contention: West Ham, Manchester United
Its first season has firmly established the Europa Conference as a brilliant and often hilarious new European competition. It has genuinely been a great success and three European trophies is the traditional and indisputably correct number to be available. But there’s no denying a certain low-rent quality to the Conference which isn’t helped in England – already the snootiest country about the lesser Euro gongs – by the connotations of calling it the Conference. We hope and believe that was deliberate.
Now we already know which teams from England will be in Europe next season; there’s just a bit of finessing to do with who ends up in which one. Spurs now look extremely likely to join Liverpool, City and – Abramovich willing – Chelsea in the Big Cup. Arsenal, for all the disappointment of the last week, are assured of fifth place at worst and with it Europa League football.
Which leaves West Ham and Manchester United fighting for the last Europa League spot. I think we can all agree that West Ham being in the Europa Conference is barely funny at all; indeed, qualifying for European football via league position in consecutive seasons is a hugely impressive achievement for David Moyes and co. And having got to the semi-finals of the Europa League, they would start among the favourites for the Conference and would almost certainly make a more dignified go of it than Spurs did.
United in the Conference, though. Now that’s funny. Let’s have that, please. We just need the Hammers to win at Brighton and Manchester United not to win at Crystal Palace. Brighton are the one we worry about there, to be honest. They may well spoil it in their own selfish quest to secure a top-half finish. Bigger picture, guys! Bigger. Picture.
Places: One – 7th in La Liga
In contention: Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao
Europa League qualifiers Real Betis’ Copa del Rey victory shuffles the Conference spot down to seventh and is one of only two bits of business to be settled on the final day in Spain, the other being the identity of the poor sods who join Alaves and Levante in the Segunda Division next term.
Real Madrid have already won the league. Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla will join them in the Champions League. Betis and Sociedad are off to the Europa. Villarreal hold a one-point advantage over Athletic Bilbao heading into the final round of games.
Places: One – 7th in Serie A
In contention: Roma, Fiorentina, Atalanta
Usual cup-win-shuffle-the-Conference-place-down-to-seventh going on here, but a potential point of interest with inaugural Conference finalists Roma in contention to finish seventh once again. They’re currently sixth but only a point ahead of both Fiorentina and Atalanta. If they finish seventh and win the Conference, then they’ll claim a Europa League spot for their troubles and Italy will have no Conference representative. Similar happened last season in Spain, where Villarreal finished seventh but qualified for the Champions League by winning the Europa to leave La Liga missing out on all that Conference banter.
There is also the possibility of eight Italian teams qualifying for Europe. Roma can still finish eighth which, combined with a win in the Conference final against Feyenoord next week, would see Italy start next season with four teams in the Champions League, three in the Europa and a Conference representative.
Places: One – 7th in Bundesliga
Qualified: FC Koln
Both Pokal finalists – Freiburg and RB Leipzig – have already qualified for Europe so we’re once again dropping to seventh to find our intrepid Conference heroes and here we find FC Koln, whose topsy-turvy recent history is currently on one of its upswings. In the space of the last decade Koln have been relegated, promoted, finished fifth in the Bundesliga, been immediately relegated again the following season, got promoted again, avoided a third relegation in nine seasons only by beating Holstein Kiel in a relegation play-off having lost the first leg at home and then finishing seventh to qualify for the Conference, which brings you bang up to date. In short, they are the absolute ideal sort of side for this competition. We are fully backing them to win it while also getting relegated from the Bundesliga with like seven points or something.
Places: One – 5th in Ligue 1
In contention: Rennes, Strasbourg, Nice, Lens
No extra cup-winner wriggle room here thanks to ninth-placed Nantes’ Coupe de France win. They are assured of a Europa League spot, while champions PSG are off for another doomed attempt at the Champions League. Other than that, it’s up for grabs. Seventh-placed Lens could still get themselves up to fifth and snaffle the Conference spot while Rennes in fourth could end up anywhere or nowhere. A win at Lille on the final day could yet take them into the Champions League, but defeat could see them miss out on Europe altogether. Strasbourg currently occupy fifth place but are level on points with Nice who face mid-table Reims on the final day while Strasbourg must take on a Marseille side looking to nail down a Champions League spot. Lens could pounce on any slip-ups from above, but their task isn’t easy either. They’ve got Monaco who are also looking to confirm Champions League football next season.
Places: Two – 4th and 5th in Primeira Liga or 5th and 6th if Porto win the Taca de Portugal
Qualified: Gil Vicente
In contention: Braga, Vitoria de Guimaraes
As things stand, Braga’s fourth-placed finish gets them into the third qualifying round and Gil Vicente are into the second for finishing fifth. BUT… even though the league season is finished in Portugal, that is all likely to change this weekend when champions Porto meet relegated Tondela in the Taca de Portugal final. If Porto win that, then it frees up another European spot. Off to the Europa League would go Braga, with Gil Vicente skipping straight to round three of the Conference qualifiers and sixth-place Vitoria taking the second qualifying round spot.
Places: Two – 4th in Eredivisie and winner of Eredivisie European play-offs
Qualified: FC Twente
In contention: AZ, Vitesse, FC Utrecht, Heerenveen
FC Twente have already bagsied themselves a sweet, sweet third qualifying round spot thanks to their fourth-place finish in the Eredivisie. They finished seven points clear of fifth-placed AZ, who should themselves be feeling pretty chipper about making their way through a play-off competition against Vitesse, Utrecht and Heerenveen. A whopping 20 points separated AZ from eighth-placed Heerenveen who find themselves with a chance to qualify from Europe after taking just 41 points from 34 regular-season games. The banter timeline demands they must of course make it.
Places: Two – 3rd and 4th in Jupiler Pro League Play-Off I
Qualified: Anderlecht, Antwerp
A weird play-off system for the Belgians, where the top four have their points from the actual season chopped in half and then carried into a new mini league where they all play each other home and away again. Great laugh, that, but luckily it’s all been nicely sorted out ahead of the final round of games. Anderlecht are definitely finishing third, taking with them a third-qualifying round spot, and Antwerp are sure to finish fourth and go into the second qualifying round. That, though, is only because Gent – who have won the Play-Off II for teams ending up between fifth and eighth are already off to the Europa League thanks to winning the cup. Had they not then winning Play-Off II would have put them into another play-off against Antwerp for that final Conference spot. Understand? Grand, can you explain it back to us then because we’re not sure we do?
Places: Two – 4th in Austrian Bundesliga Championship Round and winner of play-off between 5th in Championship Round and 1st in Relegation Round
In contention: Austria Vien, Wolfsberger, Rapid Wien, WSG Tirol
Say what you like about the insanity of the Premier League, but lord love it for not having a wild play-off post-season tacked on the end of it. You have to at least give it credit for letting the league season in the top flight just be a league season. Leave play-offs for the lads trying to get promoted and stop all this nonsense.
Austria starts off okay – splitting the league in two straight down the middle for a ‘Championship Round’ and a ‘Relegation Round’ but still has to throw in some banter. Fourth place in the Championship Round takes home a shiny third-qualifying round spot for the Conference. Does the second qualifying round spot therefore go to the team finishing fifth in the Championship Round? No, it does not. It goes to either them, or the team that wins the Relegation Round. They play off for it.
This means Austria Klagenfurt’s reward for finishing sixth was to get flogged silly in the Championship Round by the teams who finished above them in the regular season. WSG Tirol, meanwhile, having finished ninth out of 12 in the regular season with just fine wins and 23 points from 22 games find themselves with a shot at European football next season having clambered over the other bottom-halfers to end up top of the Relegation Round standings.
They will, though, have to beat that fifth-place team which will be the loser of the final-day game between Wolfsberger and Rapid Wien. The winner of that game could yet snaffle at Europa League place should Austria Wien come unstuck against Sturm Graz in their final game of the campaign.
Places: Two – 4th and 5th in Scottish Premiership
Qualified: Dundee United, Motherwell
Scotland’s own late season league-splittery seems positively mundane in comparison to the mad stuff they’ve come up with in mainland Europe these days, and their Europa Conference spots are uncomplicatedly heading the way of Dundee United (third qualifying round) and Motherwell (second qualifying round) for finishing fourth and fifth, well adrift of Europa League-bound Hearts but safely clear of sixth-placed Ross County.