BILLY BUNTER

Weblog: The football punter

Champions League qualification up for grabs

TV: Sky Sports Premier League & Main Event, 4.30pm Sunday

There will have been a time in the not too distant past when Manchester United and Chelsea took Champions League qualification for granted.

United beat Chelsea in the final on penalties in Moscow 11 years ago and then went on to reach another couple of finals, losing to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 before the Blues got their hands on the European Cup beating Bayern Munich in their own backyard in 2012.

Roll on to 2019 and there's a Premier League big six rather than top four and just making next season's competition will go down as a success for managers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Maurizio Sarri.

The clubs have tasted the somewhat demoralising nature of being in the Europa League, playing early on a Thursday in some far flung footballing backwater, watching rivals in the Champions League mixing with Europe's elite.

Chelsea are in this season's semi-finals but the only real reason to celebrate winning the Europa League is qualification to the Champions League. As Atletico Madrid midfielder Gabi said after his side dropped into the secondary competition last season: "The Europa League is s***."

It's gut-wrenching being on the outside looking in and while it's true that there is no trophy for finishing second, third or fourth, reaching the Champions League is a major prize, particularly given it may be a difficult summer for both clubs. 

Fourth-placed Chelsea hold a three-point advantage over United and a healthy goal-difference which is effectively worth an extra point. Sarri knows the significance of the outcome, saying on Friday: "We will try to win but we need not to lose."

Neither side is looking particularly fluent, with so much at stake it could lead to a cagey contest so backing under 2.5 goals appeals.

United have lost seven of their last nine matches in all competitions and their only goals in the last five games came courtesy of two Paul Pogba penalties in a fortunate 2-1 success over West Ham.

Chelsea, significantly boosted by the return of defensive kingpin Antonio Rudiger, are on a better run of results, losing just twice since going out of the FA Cup to United in February.

Eden Hazard will be the most talented player on the pitch and could be the difference, although his away-day blues are symptomatic of Chelsea's troubles outside Stamford Bridge.

Hazard is without a goal on his travels since Boxing Day and Chelsea have lost every league match away to the top six this season.

Recommendation
Under 2.5 goals

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Match in Focus

19:45 TODAY

Dundalk v FK Qarabag

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Qarabag have score nine goals in their last four matches
Expert verdict
Qarabag are seasoned European campaigners and are likely to find little resistance from Dundalk. The Azerbaijan side eased past Partizani despite a shaky opening away leg, while Dundalk have failed to score in their last four qualifiers and beat Latvian side Riga on penalties to qualify for this encounter.