YOU remember the tale of that daft Caribbean football competition in the mid-1990s in which a team had to score an own goal to give themselves a chance of going through to the next round? Oh, how we laughed at those foreigners and their funny ways.
Could never happen over here, we smirked to ourselves. We have proper football tournaments in this country. Oh yeah? You want to take a look at the weird situation which could see Stoke City qualify for next season’s Europa League by losing two games in four days.
Before I explain how that might happen: a qualification. Tony Pulis is far too professional a man to even countenance setting out not to win a game. He’s also too scary for anyone to suggest it. (If Pulis said that Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was a masterpiece of cinematic genius, I wouldn’t dare disagree with him.)
I’ve no doubt that Stoke will give all they can to win every one of their remaining matches this season. What follows is merely an attempt to explain the absurd position they find themselves in after their 5-0 thrashing of Bolton in today’s FA Cup semi-final. And it’s all down to a quirk of the fixture list and the complex Europa League qualification system.
Stoke will play Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday, May 14. Originally, the two sides were due to meet in the Premier League at Eastlands that day. (Why are there Premier League games scheduled for FA Cup final weekend? Because the Champions League final is at Wembley on May 28, and UEFA insist on the venue being free for two weeks beforehand, meaning that the FA Cup final had to be brought forward to take place during the league run-in.)
So, the league fixture between Manchester City and Stoke is now scheduled to take place on Tuesday, May 17, a few days after they play each other at Wembley. With me so far? Good.
The FA Cup winners qualify for next season’s Europa League. So if Stoke win at Wembley, then they’re in Europe. But if they lose, then things could get very, very interesting.
That is because Manchester City’s European qualification is also up in the air. They will almost certainly be in Europe next season: it’s just a question of which competition they’re in. And that could have an impact on Stoke.
If Roberto Mancini’s side win the FA Cup, then they will definitely be in the Europa League at least. The same is true if they finish fifth in the Premier League. But they have their sights set a little higher, on a top-four spot that will take them into the Champions League. Manchester City have six league matches left, and are three points ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham, who have a game in hand. There is every chance the battle for fourth could go to the season’s final week, perhaps even the final day.
Now, if City finish fourth, they will play in the Champions League. If they win the FA Cup as well, then the Europa League place that comes with that will pass to the runners-up – Stoke.
But if Manchester City finish fifth and win the FA Cup, it works out slightly differently. Mancini’s men will effectively have qualified for the Europa League twice – as cup winners and via their league position – and the spare place in that competition will go to the team who finishes sixth in the Premier League. As it stands, that’s Liverpool. Stoke would therefore miss out on Europe.
(For those – understandably – seeking proof that I’m not talking rubbish, the BBC Sport website has handily explained all of this.)
And so we have a curious situation. If Stoke lose the FA Cup final on May 14, they will only qualify for Europe if Manchester City finish in the top four. Which means that Pulis’ side could technically benefit from losing at Eastlands in the league on May 17.
It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. The Europa League is, I think, a little bit like the human brain. For all the time that experts spend studying it, no one really knows exactly how it works.
Of course, Mancini could make everything a lot simpler by ensuring that Manchester City have mathematically secured a top-four place by the time Stoke visit Eastlands. Not that it will make any difference to Stoke’s approach, as I have already made clear.
But even so, I suspect that the organisers of the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup are looking on and thinking: Wow, now that really is barmy.