In the immortal words of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Premier League season is now reaching “squeaky-bum time”. While Sunderland and Middlesbrough have both been relegated, virtually everything else remains up for grabs. The title has not yet been won (though that must surely be only a matter of time), the third relegation spot has not yet been filled and there are a number of clubs still vying for qualification into European competition for the 2017/2018 season.
With most clubs having only three fixtures remaining, there is still plenty to play for. In particular, it is very difficult to say with any certainty which clubs will qualify for the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League and which club will fill the final relegation spot.
In terms of the race for Europe, at the time of writing, Liverpool sit in third place with 70 points, having played 36 matches. Manchester City are in fourth place, one point behind but having played one game fewer. Manchester United are in fifth place, having played the same number of games as Manchester City but presently sitting on 65 points. Arsenal are in sixth place, having played 34 matches and having accumulated 63 points. For the clubs that finish in first, second, third and fourth places, qualification for the UEFA Champions League beckons. For those in fifth, sixth and seventh places, qualification for UEFA’s secondary pan-European tournament, the Europa League, will be the prize. Matters may however be complicated by Manchester United’s involvement in the latter stages of this season’s UEFA Europa League. If Manchester United were to win that tournament but to finish outside of the top four in the Premier League, they would also qualify for the UEFA Champions League.
At the other end of the table, things are equally tight. At the time of writing, Hull City and Swansea City have both played 36 matches. Hull are presently on 34 points, while Swansea sit outside of the relegation zone, only one point ahead.
At this stage of the season, every point and every goal counts. Given the proximity of clubs in terms of points, there is a real possibility that some of the clubs involved will finish on the same number of points as one or more of their rivals at the end of the season. If such an eventuality were to transpire, how would those teams’ final league positions determined? The answer lies in Premier League Rules C.4 – C.7:
“C.4 The position of Clubs in the table shall be determined by the number of points scored in that Season, the Club having scored the highest number of points being at the top of the table and the Club having scored the lowest number of points being at the bottom.
C.5 If any two or more Clubs have scored the same number of points their position in the table shall be determined on goal difference, that is to say, the difference between the total number of goals scored by and against a Club in League Matches in that Season, and the higher or highest placed Club shall be the Club with the higher or highest goal difference.
C.6 If any two or more Clubs have scored the same number of points and have the same goal difference the higher or highest placed Club shall be the Club having scored the most goals in League Matches in that Season.
C.7 Subject to Rule C.17, if any two or more Clubs have scored the same number of points, have the same goal difference and have scored the same number of goals in League Matches in that Season they shall be deemed to occupy the same position in the table.”
In short therefore, the final league placings will be determined on the basis of the following criteria:
- A club will finish above another club if it has more points at the end of the season than the other;
- If two or more clubs have the same number of points at the end of the season, their position in the table will be determined on the basis of goal difference;
- If two or more clubs have the same number of points and the same goal difference at the end of the season, their position in the table will be determined on the basis of goals scored; and
- If two or more clubs have the same number of points, the same goal difference and the same number of goals scored at the end of the season, they will occupy the same position in the table.
What Rules C.1 – C.7 do not deal with is the situation where clubs finish on the same number of points, the same goal difference and the same number of goals scored but where there is something further at stake, for instance qualification for European competition, the league title or relegation from the league. In such circumstances, it is clearly insufficient to say that the clubs simply “occupy the same position in the table.” There needs to be some way of distinguishing between the clubs where there is a particular consequence that flows from a club’s final league position. That is where Premier League Rule C.17 comes into effect. This states as follows:
“If at the end of the Season either the League Champions or the Clubs to be relegated or the question of qualification for other competitions cannot be determined because two or more Clubs are equal on points, goal difference and goals scored, the Clubs concerned shall play off one or more deciding League Matches on neutral grounds, the format, timing and venue of which shall be determined by the Board.”
There is therefore a possibility that one or more play-offs could be necessary at the end of the 2016-2017 season. While the position at the top of the league is tight, it presently looks like Hull and Swansea are most at risk of playing a one-off match for survival. At the time of writing, Swansea have played 36 matches and have accumulated 35 points, scored 41 goals and possess a goal difference of -28. Hull have played the same number of matches and have accumulated 34 points, while scoring 36 goals and possessing a goal difference of -33. With three matches each to go, it is not inconceivable that both clubs could find themselves with the same number of points, the same number of goals scored and the same goal difference, in which case a play-off would prove necessary.
This is not the first time that the Premier League season has finished so closely that a play-off has been mooted. Official provision has been made for a play-off game on two occasions in the past, albeit never before in relation to relegation. The most famous of those occasions took place in 1996, when tickets were printed for a play-off between Manchester United and Newcastle United to be held at Wembley for a title decider. In the end, Manchester United won the Premier League by 4 points, following then Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan’s famous declaration that he would “love it if we beat them”. There was therefore no need for the play-off.
There is of course plenty that could change in the outstanding fixtures and talk of play-offs may be premature. Yet the possibility remains of a thrilling denouement to a season based on a one-off play-off match at a neutral venue. For the neutral, this will be unmissable. For fans of the clubs involved, nails will likely be considerably longer before the play-off than they will be afterwards.