Arsenal's title bid took a near-fatal blow last night, as the charging Gunners found themselves on the wrong end of a north London mugging. Garry Monk and Swansea made off with the points, and all Arsene Wenger could do was mutter ungraciously. "What's the Welsh for 'parked the bus'?" he didn't exactly ask, but sort of did. "Probably have to let Chelsea have this one now," he didn't continue.
That result leaves Arsenal in third, two points ahead of Manchester United in fourth and three behind City in second. And though the Londoners have played one fewer than the other two — which they make up at home against relegation-battling Sunderland, a week Wednesday — they do, of course, have to come to Old Trafford first. With Liverpool six points and fourteen goals back in fifth, all of this means one thing:
THE RACE FOR THIRD IS BACK ON.
We're not going to indulge the embarrassing Wengerism/VanGaalism that Champions League qualification amounts to a trophy, and so for reasons of prestige it doesn't matter that third place would be a bigger non-trophy than fourth. Yet there is a difference that would be of great benefit to United, if those two points and one game can be overcome. Third place — which was, by the by, the finish for which a pre-Moyes Manchester United budgeted each year — means the Champions League. Fourth place means the Champions League ... qualifying play-off round.
Over recent years, Michel Platini and UEFA have been tweaking their premier tournament in an attempt to mix things up a bit. The most notable recent change has been in the seedings for the group stage: from next season, Group 1 will consist of the holders plus the national champions of the seven strongest leagues, while everybody else gets sorted into the other groups according to club coefficient. So if United make it, they'll likely be in Group 2, along with the other English qualifiers.
But there's that 'if'. The playoff round, another tweak, was introduced in 2009-10 and is split into two sections, the better to ensure that the Champions League contains more actual champions. In one section, champions of various smaller European leagues play one another; into the other go the third and fourth-place teams from the stronger leagues, including England. This year, that section will likely include Manchester United along with the fourth placed teams from Spain and Germany, the third placed teams from Portugal and Italy, plus five other teams who have qualified from the sixth through fifteenth strongest leagues in Europe.
So last August Arsenal made their nervous way past Besiktas, but could have been handed a much trickier draw against the likes of Porto, Napoli or Zenit St Petersburg. And this year, whoever finishes fourth will be in a pot with Sporting Lisbon (definitely), Bayer Leverkusen (probably), Valencia or Sevilla, and one of Roma, Lazio or Napoli.
Obviously, none of those teams are completely terrifying — that's why they're in the play-off round — and United are more than capable of beating any of them. But equally, none are walkovers, and one or two look very tricky indeed. Valencia have beaten Barcelona home and away this season; Roma nearly knocked City out of the tournament proper; Napoli are managed by knockout specialist and noted factfinder Rafa Benitez, assuming he sticks around. Stick any one of those sides up against Manchester United right now, and you'd give them a decent chance.
But stick any of them up against the United side that began the season and they'd probably be favourites. Arsenal played their qualifying games in the middle of the first two weeks of the season; United were busy losing to Swansea then drawing with Sunderland and Burnley. That slow start threw everything into chaos, as Louis van Gaal began the process of shuffling his formations and squad, and it ensured that United were never in touch with the title race. And that was without two legs of European football to contend with.
What the play-off round will do, therefore, is heap yet further pressure on United's preseason preparations. Already, Louis van Gaal has fought — and won — the battle to truncate the tour of the USA, while the signs are that the club are trying to get transfer business done early. Gone, too, is the reasonable excuse of a lack of familiarity with the methods of a new manager: Van Gaal won't be getting a three-month honeymoon period this time around. United, if they are going to tilt at the title, will need to hit the ground running; a playoff will only sharpen this need.
The easy way out of all of this is, of course, to beat Arsenal on Sunday, beat Hull the week after, then graciously accept a favour from either Sunderland or West Brom, who play Arsenal on the last day of the season. But assuming that doesn't work out, then United can't afford to drift through the summer, and United's fans can't afford to indulge in too much WE'RE BACK!!! gloating. Fundamentally, if qualification for the Champions League is the minimum acceptable target from this season, then a fourth-placed finish ensures it won't be job done until August. Count not a single chicken until then.