The invisible trophy

Premier League

Top 4 finish 
Chelsea @ 8/11
Liverpool @ 8/11
Leicester City @ 4/5
West Ham United @ 2/1
Tottenham Hotspur @ 10/1
view odds

When asked, top footballers always say that their primary goal is to win trophies. But the BAFTAs have just taken place and – despite all the effortful flinches, the galvanic contortions, the quick hands-to-the-face followed by the tragic, operatic, moribund descent to the earth – the hopeful ball-kickers won nothing.

Now that their social media managers have selected and posted the ‘NOT THE rezult we wOntEd’ template and gone back to bed, the poor footballers are left to look down upon the fading embers of the season and lament with escalating desperation: from whence shall my trophies come?

Certainly not in the Premier League (unless they play for Man City) and not in the Carabao Cup Final either (unless *SPOILER ALERT* they play for Man City). City are favourites for the FA Cup too, so it’s not looking all that great for everyone else on the domestic trophy front. In fact, the non-City players might as well just dust-off their leotards, go back to drama school and finish off their MA in Contemporary Dance and Stagecraft.

But wait. There is still a big domestic prize left on the shelf. One that hasn’t been panic-bought by Man City. A prize so fantastically elusive that no-one has ever been able to look upon it, let alone get their hands around it (though it is rumoured that Arsène Wenger once got very close). The Top Four Trophy.

Despite not culminating in a shiny cup or bauble, a Top Four finish in the Premier League has become one of the most keenly contested and sought-after garlands in the game. Qualification for the Champions League not only keeps the club accountants happy – thank goodness – it also gives the players the opportunity to challenge themselves against the most skilful, the most highly-paid, and the most flamboyantly theatrical players in Europe.

With Man Utd appearing to have a firm, VAR-approved grip on the #2 slot, the fight is on for berths #3 and #4. And, with seven games remaining, we have a darned close race on our hands between the contenders: Leicester, West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Spurs.

Leicester experienced a precipitous collapse last season and are flirting dangerously with her destructive beauty again. They will be hoping a returning James Maddison can help propel the Foxes through their next 4 winnable (in normal circumstances) games. Because a daunting tripartite coda of Man Utd, Chelsea, and Spurs could see the Europa League ensnare them for a second successive season.

Of the contenders, it could be argued that West Ham are best placed to qualify. An unexpectedly successful campaign received a further boost in the equally unexpected form of Jesse Lingard. One can only presume he has made some sort of Faustian pact in exchange for the return of his World Cup 2018 zest. (This would, I speculate wildly, also explain the ludicrous goal celebration hand gesture: a twin-horned insignia giving praise to the ol’ Prince of Demons himself.) A Chelsea fixture aside, the Hammers have a decent run-in.

Chelsea’s home stretch features an unsettling Bacon-esque triptych of London derbies. And despite an instant and impressive coalescence under Thomas Tuchel, there remains a lingering sense that the expensively assembled pieces could once again come apart with a well-timed nudge.

Liverpool too, despite a recent upturn in form, have lost their hard-won veneer of infallibility. But a closing quartet of seemingly benign fixtures may well be enough to see them home. They are still, however, relying on others to slip up…though that may come as a refreshing change.

I wasn’t sure if I should even mention Spurs, to be honest. Mourinho appears to be standing on the precipice of a sulk so profound it won’t just drag his side down, but will take several other teams down with them – deep into its inescapable, malevolent, Stygian centre. Nevertheless, an OK home straight and a motivated Kane could combine to somehow keep them in the hunt.

So stand up, do your stretches, strike an especially balletic attitude…and then sit down again, get your breath back, get some popcorn, then possibly a sandwich, and watch as the race for the greatest trophy in sports begins to unfold…

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