The Premier League’s Europa League contenders: Would qualification be seen as a success?

The Athletic UK Staff

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English sides have a bit of a complicated relationship with the Europa League.

Qualification for UEFA’s second-tier club competition is sometimes seen as something of a booby prize for Premier League teams but only teams from Spain have appeared in the final more times than clubs from England — 19 to 17.

Liverpool (three times), Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea (both twice), and Manchester United and Ipswich Town make up England’s nine winners of the Europa League (or the UEFA Cup, in old money).

Brighton & Hove Albion enjoyed their debut Europa League campaign this season while West Ham were involved in the competition proper for the second time in three years, sandwiching their Conference League triumph last season, but the Premier League teams fighting it out to qualify for the competition in 2024-25 all probably had ambitions of making it into the Champions League next term.

Tottenham, Newcastle, Chelsea and Manchester United are the leading contenders, so what are each team’s chances of Europa League qualifying and would that be viewed as a success? Here, four writers from The Athletic explain how the land lies.


How does qualification work?

First up, it’s worth a quick recap of what Premier League teams need to do to actually qualify for the Europa League.

The Athletic’s Ed Mackey explains the qualification requirements in depth here but, in a nutshell, the team that finishes fifth in the table will book their slot in next season’s competition.

There’s also another berth on offer for the team that wins the FA Cup.

Effectively, Manchester United have two bites of the cherry as they face Manchester City at Wembley on May 25. If City are victorious in a Manchester derby-flavoured final for the second season in a row, that qualification spot goes to the team that finishes sixth in the Premier League.

Both qualifiers will go straight into the ‘league phase’ of next season’s revamped Europa League rather than having to contend with the qualification rounds.

Of course, sixth and possibly seventh place could have been enough for the Europa League had England managed to secure a fifth Champions League spot but their UEFA coefficient has ultimately been left in the mud by Serie A and the Bundesliga.

GO DEEPER

Who is to blame for the Premier League letting a fifth Champions League spot slip away?

The Premier League’s single Conference League place will go to the team that finishes sixth in the table — or seventh, if City win the FA Cup.

The Europa League qualification picture

Position Team Played Points Goal difference *

4

36

67

20

5

35

60

11

6

35

56

22

*TBC

7

35

54

11

*TBC

8

35

54

-3

9

36

49

-14

Now, let’s break down Tottenham, Newcastle, Chelsea and Manchester United’s chances.


Tottenham Hotspur

How do you rate Tottenham’s chances of qualifying for the Europa League?Very good. Fourth place looks beyond Spurs now but Opta still gives them a 87.3 per cent chance of finishing fifth this year, which would send them straight into the Europa League group phase. They could still finish sixth and end up in the same place, as long as Manchester City win the FA Cup, but with Burnley at home and Sheffield United away still to come in the league, fifth should be Tottenham’s target, even given their current wobble.

Tottenham’s remaining fixtures

What is their most important fixture left this season?

Obviously, Manchester City at home next week is the most eye-catching fixture; the game that could decide the destination of this season’s Premier League title.

The eyes of the world will be on Tottenham Hotspur Stadium that night but the most important thing for Spurs sealing fifth and ending with a decent points tally is beating Burnley at home this Saturday and then winning at Bramall Lane on the final day of the season.

Which player’s form in the final few games of the season will be key to their qualification?

Son Heung-min remains Spurs’ most important player and for all Tottenham’s defensive struggles in recent weeks, they have stopped creating chances over the last month or so. After a spell up front, he has been moved back to the left, where he looks more comfortable, and so a few goals in the last three games of the season should help Spurs secure fifth place.


Son Heung-min has scored 17 Premier League goals so far this season (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Would qualifying for the Europa League be viewed as a success?

Ange Postecoglou has been very clear all season that he does not view Champions League football as the be-all and end-all for Spurs. For him, it does not matter as much what European competition Spurs are in, but rather that his team should continue to show signs of growth and progress.

That said, there will be some Spurs fans who think missing out to Aston Villa is a shame given Villa have had their own European competition to deal with this season. But, at the start of 2023-24, given all the changes and the departure of Harry Kane, fifth and Europa League qualification would still have been seen as a success.

And what about qualifying for the Conference League or missing out altogether?

Right now, it would take an unlikely combination of results for Spurs to miss out on European football but the Conference League is still a possibility.

That would certainly feel like a disappointment given Spurs looked like they were heading for the Champions League only a few months ago. Yet the likeliest outcome is the Europa League, which at the least will mean eight group games next season and a busier campaign after one that has felt eerily quiet at times with no European football.

 Jack Pitt-Brooke


Newcastle United

How do you rate Newcastle’s chances of qualifying for the Europa League?

Very good, qualification places dependent. Even fifth place is not out of the question and some inside Newcastle are using chasing down Spurs as a genuine target.

After a woeful winter, Newcastle have steadily improved throughout 2024 and, since the March international break, have won five in seven and lost only once.

Even given their questionable away form across the campaign, their final three games against Brighton (h), Manchester United (a) and Brentford (a) will hold no fear, especially with Joelinton, Miguel Almiron and Nick Pope back, and Kieran Trippier due to return as well.

Newcastle’s remaining fixtures

What is their most important fixture left this season?

Their trip to Manchester United on Wednesday, May 15.

Just as they directly competed for third place last season, the pair are locked in a fight for sixth this time around. Newcastle’s league record at Old Trafford is appalling, with only one victory there since the 1970s, but Eddie Howe’s side triumphed in Manchester in the Carabao Cup in November and will believe they can win there again.

If Newcastle get a positive result from that match, then they have a great chance of finishing above Manchester United in the table for the first time in the Premier League era.

Miguel Almiron, Newcastle


Newcastle won 3-0 at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup in November (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Which player’s form in the final few games of the season will be key to their qualification?

This is a cheat’s answer, sorry, because I am going to name three — but they are very much Newcastle’s match-winners.

Alexander Isak is in red-hot form and has become the first Newcastle player since Alan Shearer to score 20 Premier League goals in a season. If he keeps finding the back of the net in every match, then Europe is assured.

But it is Anthony Gordon who has been the campaign-long driving force behind Isak, delivering 10 goals and 10 assists, and winning six penalties for his team.

Finally, Callum Wilson is back fit, appears extremely hungry to impress, and wants to keep scoring to try and force his way into Gareth Southgate’s England squad.

Would qualifying for the Europa League be viewed as a success?

Undoubtedly. To outsiders, that may seem curious, considering Newcastle qualified for the Champions League last season, but that campaign came not long after a relegation battle. The team merited that achievement but the club was not ready to compete on at the elite stage consistently.

Howe, his staff and his players must learn how to balance continental competition and the Premier League, and the Europa League would be an ideal opportunity to do that.

Given the turbulence they have faced this season — a campaign-long injury crisis, Sandro Tonali’s gambling suspension, a dreadful winter and losing Dan Ashworth, to name just a few issues faced — reaching Europe’s second-tier tournament would be a magnificent achievement, rivalling those of Howe’s first two years.

And what about qualifying for the Conference League or missing out altogether?

The Conference League would be welcomed, not least because Newcastle will feel they have an excellent chance of ending their 55-year wait for a major trophy in that competition. The fans will embrace the unusual trips across the continent, too.

Howe has also rejected the suggestion it would be a “poisoned chalice”, given the extra games. “We would really value European qualification of any sort,” Howe said. “Of course, we would take the higher competition if we can.”

Missing out on Europe would be extremely deflating now, however, given Newcastle’s late-season recovery. Six weeks ago, it looked likely, never mind plausible.

But now, it would feel like a huge setback given the owners’ ambitions.

Chris Waugh


Chelsea

How do you rate Chelsea’s chances of qualifying for the Europa League?

Chelsea are feeling better about their chances of finishing sixth than at any other stage of a season largely spent languishing in mid-table.

Back-to-back resounding London derby wins over Tottenham and West Ham have buoyed confidence shaken badly by a 5-0 defeat against Arsenal last month, Manchester United appear to be in freefall, and Newcastle are just as flawed and injury-hit as they are. Seventh, however, is their likeliest finishing spot (48.6 per cent chance according to Opta’s simulation), which would yield Conference League football.

Chelsea’s remaining fixtures

What is their most important fixture left this season?

Mauricio Pochettino will like the look of Chelsea’s final two fixtures against Brighton and Bournemouth, two teams with nothing substantial to play for.

This weekend’s trip to Nottingham Forest looks trickiest, since Nuno Espirito Santo’s team will not be mathematically safe from relegation when the game kicks off. Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ola Aina, two Cobham academy graduates in good form, will also have had this fixture circled in their calendars for a while.

Which player’s form in the final few games of the season will be key to their qualification?

As well as being the club’s top scorer and the most nerveless penalty-taker in the Premier League, Cole Palmer is the brain of Chelsea’s attack.

Almost everything goes through him and his ability to consistently make the right decision is a key reason why Pochettino’s team have been much more free-scoring of late. No one has been able to entirely shut him down but if opponents can find a way to limit his influence, they are a long way towards beating Chelsea.

Would qualifying for the Europa League be viewed as a success?

It would certainly feel like it for Pochettino, this group of players and many supporters — particularly since the level of form required to reach sixth place simply looked beyond Chelsea for most of the season.

Getting there while enduring a perpetual injury crisis would be even more impressive but success is trickier to define internally. Having spent so much on this squad, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital did not plan for two consecutive seasons spent outside the Champions League.

Mauricio Pochettino


European qualification would put a positive spin on Mauricio Pochettino’s first season in charge of Chelsea (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

And what about qualifying for the Conference League or missing out altogether?

Chelsea would certainly rather have European football at Stamford Bridge next season than not, and the competition could actually prove useful for making sure everyone gets enough minutes on the pitch if they can ever keep the bulk of their squad fit again.

Yet it is unlikely to move the needle in terms of helping Pochettino keep his job and financially, the costs of participating in the Conference League might even outweigh the benefits.

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Manchester United

How do you rate Manchester United’s chances of qualifying for the Europa League?

Unlikely. These sentences are being written shortly after United’s biggest defeat of the season against Crystal Palace, leaving Erik ten Hag’s side eighth in the league, with a far worse goal difference than their rivals.

United’s form is patchy, the squad is depleted by injury and the manager is rapidly losing goodwill among the fanbase. They’re a team low in confidence and running out of road needed to regain momentum.

Manchester United’s remaining fixtures

*FA Cup final

What is their most important fixture left this season?

Talk of the Devils listeners will be familiar with our jokes around the concept that a “must-win game” is meaningless to a club of United’s size and stature. Every game for Manchester United is the most important fixture because any match that doesn’t result in a win provokes talk of crisis and noise around the manager’s future.

Fixtures against Arsenal (May 12) and Newcastle (May 15) provide the biggest opportunity for slip-ups/success/embarrassment, but Ten Hag will know that his side need to be at their maximum for every remaining fixture.

Which player’s form in the final few games of the season will be key to their qualification?

Bruno Fernandes. The United captain is a curious player. His unorthodox high-risk/high-reward style of passing can be essential to churning out winning results for a dysfunctional group of players. However, if United are to one day become a functional and less chaotic football team, they may need to reduce Fernandes’ influence in games.

Yet, as Monday’s 4-0 defeat to Palace emphatically proved, United need Fernandes in the here and now — and he is such a creative tyro that he’ll try his best to answer the call.

Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United


Bruno Fernandes is Manchester United’s main game-changer (Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Would qualifying for the Europa League be viewed as a success?

Sort of? Ten Hag started the 2023-24 with the ambition of turning United into “the best transition team in the world” but a widespread injury crisis has decreased his side’s potency in attacking transitions and has been ruinous for his plans to improve the defensive transitions.

The United manager is trying his best to salvage a season that several fans now consider a write-off. United want to be a Champions League club but a late surge to secure sixth would bring a welcome(ish) sigh of relief.

And what about qualifying for the Conference League or missing out altogether?

West Ham fans chanted “Conference League winners, you never sing that” at Old Trafford in early February. “Give it a few years” was the self-deprecating response from supporters leaving the Stretford End at full-time.

United fans are torn on Conference League. Some would prefer not to qualify for UEFA’s tertiary tournament, reasoning that United playing one game a week would allow for greater training time and allow Ten Hag to further develop his team.

Others would relish opportunity to travel to some of Europe’s lesser-known but still exciting footballing sites, and think the competition would offer a good chance of winning silverware and giving game time to youngsters.

This writer’s personal opinion is the Conference League should be seen as a chance for earn some glory, rather than a further ignominy. He’d also like to remind you the Conference League has the same anthem as the Europa League.

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(Top photos: Getty Images)



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