Everyone knows the top four clubs in the English Premier League go to the Champions League, or at least to the qualifying rounds. And then if you don't finish in the top four, you might get the consolation prize of playing in the Europa League. But this is where things get a little bit dicey. The Europa League still carries some of the traditions on the old Cup Winners' Cup, and so the winners of domestic cup competitions get first crack at a few of the qualifying places. Because the cup finals don't come until later in the year for clubs other than West Ham, this leaves the Europa places uncertain until quite late.
So that's difficult. And then UEFA went and changed the rules but did not really tell anyone. The qualifying structure for the Europa League has never been simple, but now it is also being changed at committee meetings in Dubrovnik and the only way to learn about it is to read PDFs of faxed memoranda off the internet.
So I'm here to help walk you through it. Where should we start?
People still fax things? Is it 1995? Can I frost my tips and wear oversized sweaters again?
Yes, for real. You can read the key memorandum in question here, in all its splotchy glory, from the invaluable website of Bert Kassies.
Ok. So I know how it used to work. Has it changed a lot?
No, not a lot. The fifth place team still gets Europa League. The League and FA Cup winners still qualify, and if they have already qualified for Europe, that spot falls to the 6th place or 7th place club.
But there are two key changes. First, the FA Cup runner-up no longer makes the Europa League if the FA Cup winner has already qualified for a European competition. So last year, Hull City went to Europa qualifying because they lost to Arsenal in the cup final. If the new rules had been in place, Manchester United would have been in Europa this year instead of Hull.
I think I begin to understand why UEFA changed the rules.
Yup. This is all about casting a wider net for big sides to play in Europa. The other change, along with this one, is that the second qualifying team from England does not have to play any qualifying matches. So last year Tottenham had to play a two-legged tie with AEL Limassol. Under this year's rules, Spurs would have jumped straight to the group stage.
Any chance you've got a handmade flowchart that explains these rules?
Got it. So what does this mean for Tottenham Hotspur?
Most importantly, this means that if you're one of those people hoping to avoid the Europa League next year, you should begin decathecting. It is possible that Spurs finish outside the top seven, but it's very unlikely. My projections rate the likelihood of a Tottenham finish below 8th place at under five percent, and my projections hate Spurs. A seventh place finish is quite likely, but that would probably still see Tottenham in Europa.
Under last year's rules, it would have taken only one upset in the final four of the FA Cup to knock the seventh place team out of Europa. Now it takes two. Either both Arsenal and Liverpool lose in the semifinals, or one of Reading or Aston Villa pulls off back-to-back upset wins and takes the title. The bookies rate that possibility at around one-in-ten.
So it's certainly possible that seventh place doesn't get Europa, but it's pretty darn unlikely.
Is there any difference between finishing sixth and seventh?
Maybe! That "third qualifying round" that the seventh place team gets dropped in? Last year it was scheduled for July 31 and August 7. The team would be playing competitive football against lord knows what Macedonian cup winner in midsummmer. It's not ideal.
Now, Spurs could finish sixth ahead of Liverpool and still get dropped into the qualifying rounds. So nothing is guaranteed. But I think it makes sense to hope this club gets to fifth or sixth place and gets exempted from qualifying altogether.
But I hate Europa League. I hate it.
Well, that's too bad. Barring a tremendous collapse or some extra-special cup magic, it's happening. Embrace Europa. It's a chance for glory, about which I have been told the game is.