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May 11, 2009

Europa League race will earn an early start

The battle for seventh place in the Premier League and a place in the Europa League could be the only top half issue to be resolved come the last day of the season, but a poisoned chalice lies in wait.

The FA Cup winners and the fifth placed team in the Premier League enter the competition in the final qualifying round, known as the Play-off Round. But the Carling Cup winners enter the competition in the Third Qualifying round, the place which will be taken by the team finishing seventh due to Manchester United's success.

Everton's qualification via the FA Cup means they will enter in the Play-off Round which is played on August 20 and 27.

The success of the big clubs on route to Wembley will also come as a relief to Aston Villa, as it means they will begin at this stage too. They played their first competitive game this season in the now defunct Intertoto Cup on July 19 and this has been highlighted as the reason they have so spectacularly run out of steam.

But an early start beckons for Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United or Manchester City.

The Third Qualifying Round takes place on July 30 and August 6 when all sides will still be very much in preparation for the new Premier League campaign which is scheduled for August 15.

It will also put a question mark over plans put in place for pre-season. Tottenham take part in the Wembley Cup at the end of July and will take on Barcelona on July 24 and the Celtic on July 26 before they would be due to play their first Europa League qualifier four days later.

Manchester City are on tour in South Africa in the latter half of the month, and will play a South African side on July 25.

The situation is not so serious for Fulham, who currently occupy the Europa League place, as their last match on a tour of Australia comes on July 15 while West Ham are also scheduled to be in the country at the end of July.

Should England occupy one of the top three places in UEFA's Fair Play league it will be even worse with those three teams - one each from three nations - entering at the First Qualifying Round, which begins on July 2.

From UEFA's standings released in December that looks unlikely, as England were some way down the table. Manchester City quallified via this route last season but did not have to play their first match until July 17. It will be much tougher in the future with an early start and four qualifying rounds to navigate through rather than two.

Arsenal will enter the Champions League qualifying at the Play-off Round, which takes place the same week as that stage of the Europa League. But they may face a stiffer task this term as the best placed runners-up will play each other, with Champions of smaller nations in a separate qualifying area. It means Arsenal could, as the tables stand now, play Valencia, Fiorentina, Hertha Berlin, Lyon or Celtic.

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