City cork champagne to focus on third
Manchester City risk their path to next season's Champions League group stages being blocked by European heavyweights such as Bayern Munich, Lyon or Benfica if they fail to repeat Saturday's FA Cup final victory against Stoke at Eastlands this evening.
Roberto Mancini's players have surpassed the demands of owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan this season by securing a top-four finish and ending the club's 35-year trophy drought with their FA Cup triumph at the weekend.
But Arsenal's woeful end to the season, with just one win in six league games, has given City the opportunity to dislodge them from third spot and claim the final automatic pass into the Champions League group stages.
A victory against Stoke tonight would put City one point clear of the Carling Cup finalists going into the final weekend of the season. And the reward for victory has become clear with City facing a hazardous route through the Champions League play-offs in August, three days after a Community Shield clash against Manchester United, should they fail to overhaul Arsenal.
Having finished third in the Bundesliga this season, four-time European champions Bayern are already lying in wait in the 'League Path' section of the play-offs, in which 10 non-champions from Europe's leading leagues are drawn together for a place in the group stages (see below).
The importance of claiming third place has been acknowledged in the City camp, with Gareth Barry admitting that Cup-winning celebrations were put on hold at the weekend because of the prize at stake of claiming third place.
"We had to watch the celebrations a bit because of the league game against Stoke," Barry said. "And we all had an eye on the Arsenal-Villa game (on Sunday), to see whether there was any chance we could get third.
"There is now an opportunity for us getting third place so we'll be out to win the game." City, meanwhile, are likely to be without forwards Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli tonight because of concerns over hamstring and knee injuries respectively.
Why is it so important to finish third?
Third place ensures direct qualification for the Champions League group stages and avoids the potentially hazardous tie which comes with finishing fourth.
Who could England's fourth-placed team face?
Bayern Munich, Villarreal, Benfica, Dynamo Kiev and possibly Lyon,
Lazio or Panathinaikos.
What happened to the easy qualifiers against teams from Europe's lesser leagues?
That all changed two years ago when split qualifiers were introduced. The champions of the likes of Serbia, Romania and Austria take the 'Champions Path'. City or Arsenal will be in the 'League Path'.
Is the draw seeded?
Yes. Ten teams take the League Path. The five with the best rankings are seeded. Arsenal, ranked sixth, would be seeded. City, currently at 42, face an anxious wait on the other qualifiers.
When will qualifiers be played?
Aug 16/17 and Aug 23/24 (tbc).
What happens if you lose?
You go into the Europa League. (© Daily Telegraph, London)