As you're doubtlessly aware, Newcastle sit fifth in the Premier League table with 5 games to play, which would qualify them for the Europa League if the season ended today...right? Well, maybe. The standards for qualification are somewhat nebulous from year to year, so it's worth taking a look at all of the rules to see exactly what needs to happen for the Toon to be playing extra matches next year. Follow the jump for a full explanation.
UEFA Champions League Qualification
Four teams from the Premier League qualify for the Champs League each year...period. Typically, that means that the top 4 places are automatic qualifiers, but Chelsea's progression in this year's tournament throws a wrench into the process. If the Blues, who have advanced to the semifinal round, were to win the whole thing, they would automatically qualify for the 2012-13 season. So let's say that they do hoist the trophy, but finish outside the top 4. Only the top 3 teams would qualify, with 4th place (and maybe 5th, see below) being bumped down to Europa. More on this hypothetical later.
To sum up, the following teams have qualified or will qualify for the Champs League:
Manchester United, Manchester City, Third Place Finisher, Fourth Place Finisher (with one exception)
UEFA Europa League Qualification
Either three or four teams from England qualify for Europa each year. The top non-Champs League qualifying league spot is guaranteed a place in Europa, and as we have already seen, that can be either 4th or 5th place this year. The two other qualifiers come from the domestic cups...in some cases. If a cup winner does not otherwise qualify for a European league, that cup trophy is their ticket in. If the cup winner has qualified, the runner-up gets the honors, unless they have already gained entry. In that case, the next league spot opens up. This year, Liverpool won the Football League Cup, and they will not be qualifying any other way, so they have one spot already sewn up. The FA Cup has reached the semifinal stage, which will be run this weekend. The matchups are:
Liverpool vs. Everton
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea
This can get very complicated very quickly, but the key here is Everton. If they advance to the final, they will almost certainly win the third Europa spot since Spurs or Chelsea are likely to gain entrance to Europe via other means, and if they don't, it likely means that Newcastle has placed high enough in the league that this exercise is purely academic for members of the Toon Army anyway. If Everton lose this weekend, the 6th (or 5th, if Chelsea win the Champs League) spot more than likely opens up for the Europa League.
A fourth way into Europa is via the Fair Play Table, but the Toon don't have a shot in hell there so I'm not even going to touch it.
To sum up, the following teams have qualified or will qualify for the Europa League:
Liverpool, Fifth Place (Fourth in one case), FA Cup Winner or Runner-up OR Sixth Place (Fifth in one case), Fair Play Winner (maybe)
Four League Qualifiers
If, as previously stated, Chelsea win the Champs League whilst finishing outside the top 4 AND Everton win the FA Cup (OR if Spurs beat Everton in the final and finish third or fourth, OR if Chelsea beat Everton in the final), there will only be two remaining spots left: third place would go to the Champs League, and fourth place would go to Europa. Fifth and sixth are out.
Six League Qualifiers
In order for 3rd through 6th to all qualify, Everton need to lose in the FA Cup semifinal and Chelsea need to lose in the Champions League (or they can win and finish third or fourth). Third and fourth go to the Champs League; fifth and sixth go to Europa.
Five League Qualifiers
Everton advance to the FA Cup final. Chelsea either lose in the Champions League or win and finish third or fourth. Third and fourth go to the Champs League and fifth goes to Europa. Sixth is out.
A Quick Look at the Table
Here are the top 8:
I've included Everton and Liverpool because they are still mathematically alive for 6th place, which as we know is the lowest qualifying spot available this year. Technically, Fulham and Norwich City could make up the ground, but we've already stretched the boundaries of what could realistically happen by including 7 & 8. What I'm showing you here is that Newcastle have essentially assured themselves of a top 6 place, barring a terrible set of circumstances I'm not allowing myself to think about. Since both Manchester clubs have already sown up spots in the top 3, we are not going to concern ourselves with them. Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle, and Chelsea are all fighting for what could be as few as two and as many as four remaining spots.
Remaining League Fixtures for the Contenders
Arsenal (currently 3rd): Wigan, Chelsea, @Stoke, Norwich, @West Brom
Spurs (currently 4th): @QPR, Blackburn, @Bolton, @Aston Villa, Fulham
Newcastle (currently 5th): Stoke, @Wigan, @Chelsea, Manchester City, @Everton
Chelsea (currently 6th): @Arsenal, QPR, NUFC, @Liverpool, Blackburn
It's important to note that both Chelsea and Spurs have at least one more FA Cup match to contend with on their schedule while Chelsea will face Barcelona in the Champs League twice.
Everton-Liverpool on Saturday is going to be huge. However, the best thing Newcastle can do is to keep gaining points. It's not an easy run-in - 3 matches against top 7 opponents, 1 against a team battling for its survival, and 1 against unpredictable Stoke. It will not be easy, but the last 5 matches of the season are vitally important. When was the last time we said that about this team and it was a good thing?