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By Ben Pearce
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
IF Harry Redknapp thought Europa League qualification was the worst-case scenario this season he was wrong – success in the Fair Play league is infinitely worse.
This seemingly incidental table, inspired by Uefa, has gone utterly unnoticed since August, but this week it has become just as important as the Premier League itself.
Uefa have announced that England, Norway and Sweden have topped their fair play rankings, and that each country will be awarded an extra Europa League spot.
The ‘lucky’ team will be the highest-placed side in the Premier League’s own Fair Play league – provided that they have not already qualified for Europe.
That rules out Chelsea, who are top, but the table is only updated once a month, and currently shows the rankings up to and including the games on Saturday April 30.
Fulham are second but Tottenham are third, making them the potential ‘winners’ if they miss out on fifth place and also overtake the Cottagers when the final Fair Play league is compiled.
To say that that would be an inconvenience would be a serious understatement. The team who enters Europe through the Fair Play league is required to play eight matches just to get into the group stages – three two-legged qualifying rounds and a play-off.
The first fixture on that odyssey would come on June 30, just 39 days after the end of the current campaign, which would shorten the holidays of first-team players – some of whom will be in international action in June - and wreak havoc with pre-season preparations.
Of course, Tottenham could send their youngsters out to play in these qualifying ties, but the Lilywhites have also committed to a tournament in South Africa between July 16-23, which may also have been earmarked for the squad’s fringe members.
Spurs can avoid all of this by beating Liverpool to fifth place on Sunday. But, with Birmingham fighting to avoid relegation, and given Tottenham’s record against the bottom teams this season, the Fair Play league is certainly worth studying.
While it has been widely reported that Fulham are in pole position, they are actually level with Spurs when it comes to the all-important average score – both teams are on 8.43 at the last count of April 30, when Spurs had a game in hand.
This average is the result of a complicated system, based on scores which are given to each team in every game. There are six different criteria ranging from discipline (red and yellow cards) to the behaviour of coaching staff and even the supporters.
Ignoring the final calculation that leads to that 8.43 average, each side is given a score out of 40 for every one of their league matches.
Having played 35 games up to April 30, Fulham had a total cumulative score of 1180 – 34 points more than Spurs.
However, since then the Lilywhites have played an extra match – their game in hand against Manchester City – and Redknapp’s side have averaged just under 34 points per game.
If the table was updated now, Spurs would be very close – in fact they could well be ahead.
While it is impossible to tell how the two teams have scored for positive play and the behaviour of coaches and fans, it is easy to calculate their relative scores for discipline – and Tottenham’s has been markedly better this month.
Out of the 40 points awarded for each match, 10 are for discipline, with one point being deducted for each yellow card (and three for a red).
Mark Hughes’ side have picked up 10 yellow cards in their two fixtures in May, while Spurs have received five in three matches.
That equates to 10 points from a possible 20 for Fulham, and 25 from a possible 30 for Tottenham – a 15-point swing in the Lilywhites’ favour on that criteria alone.
With such a small gap between the two sides, that could be a crucial factor. In short, the ‘battle’ to win the Fair Play league is a lot closer than Spurs would like, and they are in real danger of coming out on top.
Having voiced his concerns over qualifying for the Europa League, Redknapp is now stuck between a rock and a hard place.
In essence, Tottenham need to finish fifth and take on all of those extra games on the continent simply to avoid a further eight in the competition’s qualifiers.