Chelsea battle for Premier League fourth spot

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Chelsea’s improbable march to the Champions League final has raised the stakes as the battle for places in next season’s competition resumes in the Premier League this weekend.

With leaders Manchester United not facing second-placed Manchester City in their heavyweight title duel until Monday, all eyes are on the race for a top-four spot between Arsenal, Newcastle, Tottenham and Chelsea.

Chelsea’s miraculous elimination of Barcelona on Tuesday means that the once fanciful idea of the Londoners winning the competition now has to be taken seriously by their Premier League rivals.

Chelsea, who are currently four points adrift of the top four in sixth, would be guaranteed a place in next season’s Champions League if they beat Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena on May 19.

Most worrying for Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle is the fact that should Chelsea finish outside the top four, their inclusion in the 2012/2013 Champions League will be at the expense of the team who finishes in fourth place.

Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, whose side stormed into fourth last weekend after their sixth straight win, admits that he is spooked by the possibility of the Magpies missing out if Chelsea are crowned European champions.

“If that happened with us finishing fourth but missing out on the Champions League, it would be a kick in the teeth for us,” Pardew said.

“We don’t want Chelsea to win the Champions League because we want that spot. It would be very harsh if we finished fourth and then missed out.”

Newcastle will be chasing their seventh win in a row on Saturday when they travel to relegation-threatened Wigan. The Magpies are three points behind third placed Arsenal with a game in hand.

Arsenal, who have stumbled recently with a home defeat to Wigan followed by a draw at the Emirates against Chelsea, face a potentially awkward trip to Stoke, where they have lost on three out of four of their last visits.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has acknowledged that the prospect of Chelsea usurping the team which finishes fourth is “unfortunate.”

“We would not be happy but it’s the rules and we have to accept it,” Wenger said. “We cannot change the rules just because it’s us.”

Chelsea meanwhile will attempt to build on the momentum generated by the elimination of Barcelona in a potentially explosive meeting with Queens Park Rangers at Stamford Bridge.

Premier League chiefs have tried to defuse controversy by abandoning the pre-match handshake at Sunday’s game because of racism allegations involving John Terry and Anton Ferdinand.

Chelsea skipper Terry is facing a July 9 court case over claims he racially abused Ferdinand during QPR’s victory over their fellow Londoners in October.

Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard has meanwhile challenged his team-mates to kick on from the heroics at the Camp Nou.

“We can enjoy it, but we certainly need to keep focused,” Lampard said.

“We’re on a decent run of performances for sure, but the last thing we want to do is lower our standards,” he said.

“There’s a determination among the players, people may have watched us against Wigan and Fulham recently and thought we were on our last legs, but you can’t knock this team down because we’ll keep coming back.”

Tottenham meanwhile host struggling Blackburn in a game they can ill-afford to lose if they are to stay in touch with in-form Newcastle.

Spurs fell out of the top four for the first time since October after last weekend’s defeat at QPR and now trail the Magpies by three points.

Harry Redknapp is refusing to be unsettled by the possibility that Tottenham’s quest for Champions League football next year might be doomed if Chelsea lift the title next month.

“We’ve got to make sure we finish fourth or third, make sure we’re in a position to qualify,” Redknapp said. “If we don’t, it doesn’t matter what happens.

“It’s still wide open – Arsenal, Chelsea, ourselves, Newcastle – it’s still any two from four.

“We’ve got to go on a good run now. If we pull off good results in these last four games we’ll be in the Champions League and I’m very confident we’ll do that.”

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