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Rivals seek Champions League ticket

Preview of Sunday's matches from the Barclays Premier League.
Preview of Sunday's matches from the Barclays Premier League.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The finale of the Barclays Premier League unfailingly delivers fireworks. Take this year's final day, on which nine of ten games kick off simultaneously across the entire FOX Family (live, Sunday, 10:30 a.m. ET).

Manchester United has long since sewn up the title while Manchester City clinched second place last week. The three teams that will end 18th, 19th and dead last and will subsequently be relegated to the second-tier Championship are already known, too. They are Wigan Athletic, Reading FC and Queens Park Rangers, respectively. Yet there remains so much to play for.

It matters a great deal where you place, not just whether or not you've landed a raffle ticket into the post-season lottery or not. There are no semi-comatose players going through the motions, either trying to save their best for the playoffs or trying not to get hurt before they go on holiday. In a regular season-only format, your final position in the standings is everything - it's what you measure the success or failure of your season by.

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The biggest prize left is one of the spots in next year's UEFA Champions League, granted to the top four finishers. It's the most competitive league in the world, it's where the glory is won - not to mention tens of millions of dollars in prize and television money that will better equip you for your domestic league. So this tussle for third and fourth place is where the entertainment will come from on Sunday.

As it stands, three London clubs - all mutual and much-hated rivals - are still in the running. Whether they come third or fourth is important, because the third-placed team advances straight into the Champions League group stage. The fourth has to play a qualifying round. The fifth heads for the much less lucrative and prestigious UEFA Europa League. The difference between the places is the guarantee of many millions. This is elite European soccer after all, and money is what makes the ball roll in the direction you favor.

Chelsea are currently in third place with 72 points and a goal difference - goals scored minus goals conceded; the first tie-breaker - of +35. Arsenal trail in fourth place with 70 points and a goal difference of +34. Tottenham Hotspur sit in fifth - well distanced from sixth-placed Everton - with 69 points and a +19 goal difference. Since a win still very much gets you three points and a draw one, all three can still make it into Europe's big dance. Spurs can't end third, however, unless Chelsea loses and they make up 15 goals in all - meaning Chelsea would have to lose by seven and Spurs to win by eight, or something equally improbable.

Chelsea are the owners of the strange and unprecedented distinction of holding both the Champions League and Europa League titles at the same time - this year's Champions League final isn't until May 25 - in spite of living through back-to-back seasons of chaos, managerial firings and interim replacements. They face plucky Everton at home, who have already lost their manager David Moyes to Manchester United for next season.

Spurs are at home to spend-happy but hapless Sunderland, which only just avoided relegation. Making the Champions League would be rather just for the Spurs. They placed fourth last year, but because Chelsea, which ended lower, had won the tournament they were granted automatic re-entry and Spurs were left hanging. Anchored by Player of the Year Gareth Bale, who is deputized by American spitfire Clint Dempsey among others, Andre Villas-Boas' men hope to avenge that unfortunate quirk. What's more: Villas-Boas was the man fired by Chelsea last year.

Arsenal, meanwhile, travel to Newcastle. After the Magpies beat QPR in a tense game last weekend to secure their own tenuous place in the Premier League, manager Alan Pardew said that he wouldn't "really care if Arsenal win 4-0." There's nothing at stake for his badly underperforming side, although he conceded that "I'm sure Spurs will [care]." (He later backtracked, saying he was joking.)

If Chelsea and Arsenal take third and fourth place, there could be a wrinkle - a freak occurrence, really, should it come to pass. If Arsenal win 2-1 at Newcastle, and Chelsea draws Everton 0-0, the London rivals will be completely tied for third place. On points, on goal difference, on goals scored, and on goals conceded. All the tie-breakers. So they'd have to play an ultra-rare playoff game for third place and that direct qualification for the group stage.

There may be no titles left to win, but for a handful of major clubs, it's all on the line.

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