LONDON: The race for England’s two guaranteed Europa League places could hardly be tighter. Liverpool and Tottenham are level with 58 points followed by Southampton (57).
Liverpool, now resigned to missing injury-prone England striker Daniel Sturridge for the rest of the season, drew 0-0 at West Bromwich.
Manager Brendan Rodgers acknowledged even before the game that he needs to buy a goal-scoring striker in the summer to reduce the reliance on Sturridge. That was also a virtual admission that Mario Balotelli will be sold, assuming someone else is willing to gamble on the sulky Italian.
Tottenham needed to spend on defenders. They blundered badly twice at the back to concede goals to Graziano Pelle at Southampton. Manager Mauricio Pochettino, who left Saints for Spurs last summer, was spared an embarrassing defeat by equalisers from Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli.
In fact, Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton might all be in the Europa League next season. Aston Villa can take the third slot if they beat Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. But if Arsenal, sure of a Champions League place, win at Wembley then the League Cup slot will go to the seventh-placed club in the league.
English clubs view Europa League entry with mixed feelings. The Thursday kickoffs play havoc with weekend match preparation. Liverpool last season and Manchester United this season have benefited enormously in the Premier League from not being in Europe at all.
Pochettino said: “The Europa League is a tough competition because it affects your domestic league. Having had the experience this season I can confirm it is difficult to manage the Europa League with the Premier League and both cups.”
** Manchester City’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa was the first Premier League game with goals by players from three different South American nations: City’s Sergio Aguero (Argentina) and Fernandinho (Brazil) plus Villa’s Carlos Sanchez (Colombia).
FA Cup Finalists Villa have already scored more goals this season under Tim Sherwood (14 in nine games) than under Paul Lambert (12 in 25 games).
** Leiecester City’s Robert Huth enjoyed his most outstanding performance yet since moving on loan as the Foxes won 1-0 away to bottom club Burnley. Huth’s Foxes thus edged out of the relegation zone for the first time in five months.
Burnley’s Matt Taylor missed a penalty early in the second half and Leicester capitalised almost immediately with a winning close-range touch from Jamie Vardy. Huth had one lucky escape, just before the end. Inadvertently he deflected a cross towards his own goal but keeper Kasper Schmeichel made a fine save.
** Sunderland dropped into the bottom three, one point behind Leicester, after a 1-1 draw at Stoke where Philipp Wollscheid continued to establish himself as a solid centre-defence partner to Ryan Shawcross – while also collecting his fourth league yellow card since arriving in January.
** Hull are above Leicester only on goal difference after winning 2-0 at Crystal Palace. But they remain in serious danger since their last five matches include games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United.
** Newcastle’s crisis deepened with a seventh successive defeat, 3-2 at home to Swansea for whom goal-scorer Gylfi Sigurdsson was man of the match. Swansea have now beaten their Premier League points record with 50 compared to 47 in 2011-12.
** QPR’s Charlie Austin became the first player to miss two penalties in a season after failing from the spot in the strugglers’ goalless home derby draw against West Ham.
** Watford, coached by ex-Yugoslavia midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic, clinched promotion back to the Premier League with a 2-0 win over Brighton in the second division [The Championship].