The race for the top four is set to be an intriguing and nervy battle between now and May. We assess the four prime candidates’ chances.
First things first, for any aggrieved Southampton fans reading this, chances are Ronald Koeman’s side will fall away between now and the end of the season, hence their exclusion from this article.
While the Saints may surprise many of us and end up being right in the mix come May, one thing that can’t be denied is that Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham are all vying for the final two Champions League spots this season.
Chelsea will surely now clinch the title, following Manchester City‘s insipid bi-annual attempt at retaining their crown, while Manuel Pellegrini’s side should have enough in their locker to finish second.
Between now and the final day of the Premier League on 24th May, the aforementioned quartet all have 10 games to play, some of which look easy on paper and others of which look extremely tough:
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On paper, there are certainly some sides who will be happier with their remaining fixtures than others, but then form, injuries and luck can all play a part. Here is how we think each team is shaping up ahead of the final straight:
Brendan Rodgers’ side have made amazing progress since their 3-0 drubbing at Old Trafford back in December, and it’s a miracle that they are even in the Champions League running in many ways.
In terms of momentum, nobody is better set to finish in the top four than the Reds, and arguably the biggest stumbling block is whether Rodgers’ exciting young side wilt when it really comes to the crunch matches.
The games against United and Arsenal are both potentially season-defining. Six points from those matches would surely help seal a Champions League berth, while two defeats would likely end their chances. Stoke away is a very tricky final game, meanwhile.
Daniel Sturridge is slowly getting back to his best, and will be vital to his side in the next couple of months, while the creativity of Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, and influence of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can, will also be pivotal.
Liverpool know what it takes to put together a winning streak, having won 11 on the spin this time last year, which should hopefully stand them in good stead for a formidable end to the campaign.
Home: 4 / Away: 6
Games vs. a top four rival: Man United (h), Arsenal (a)
Arsene Wenger’s side take plenty of flack for their ability to fall apart when the going gets tough, but while that may be the case in games against the top sides, their top four pedigree cannot be questioned.
Over the last two seasons, the Gunners have a better record than anyone against teams in the bottom-half of the table, and their ability to grind out victories home and away is deserving of respect.
Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil may not be at the top of their game, but are capable of producing magic at key moments, while the continued good form of Laurent Koscielny, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud will prove important.
How they fare against Liverpool and United is clearly vital, but the trips to relegation-threatened Burnley and Hull could also be tricky. Statistics show that they invariably overcome these teams, but Arsenal‘s ability to capitulate can’t be completely ignored.
Home: 6 / Away: 4
Games vs. a top four rival: Liverpool (h), Man United (a)
Having spent huge sums of money on the likes of Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw last summer, as well as paying on-loan signing Radamel Falcao astronomical wages, United have endured a miserable season by their recent high standards.
Louis van Gaal has come in with a huge reputation but has done no better than David Moyes in terms of performances, and their FA Cup defeat to Arsenal on Monday was another low point.
Despite their obvious struggles, United have still been the masters at winning ugly this season. Time and time again they have ground out wins when they haven’t deserved it, and although some will claim it is solely down to luck, it is a skill to a certain extent.
Their run-in is definitely the hardest of the four though, with trips to Chelsea and Liverpool, and home games against Spurs, City and Arsenal. That could be where they falter.
In terms of quality and form, Van Gaal’s men are not even close to Arsenal and Liverpool’s level, but their ability to dig deep, coupled with the likes of Di Maria, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie’s potential to up their game at some point, means they should not be written off. A win at Anfield changes everything.
Home: 5 / Away: 5
Games vs. a top four rival: Tottenham (h), Liverpool (a), Arsenal (h)
Mauricio Pochettino’s side have almost gone under the radar a little in recent months, staying in touch with the pack when many probably expected them to drift away.
Harry Kane’s sensational form has been a large reason for their impressive run of form, as has Christian Eriksen’s unbelievable knack of scoring crucial late goals.
They look made of sterner stuff than in the past, and the recent 2-1 home win over Arsenal was clearly a massive psychological moment in their season.
On paper, Spurs probably have the kindest remaining fixtures, perhaps along with Arsenal. Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford will go a long way to seeing what they are made of, and trips to Southampton and Everton could also prove troublesome.
Whether Pochettino’s men quite have the firepower and know-how to get over the finish line remains to be seen, but they are certainly in with a fighting chance.
Home: 4 / Away: 6
Games vs. a top four rival: Man United (a)
There will be many twists and turns during these final 10 rounds of fixtures, and each of the above sides will have both good and bad days in the approaching weeks.
Arsenal look strong candidates to finish third, given their experience of finishing in the top four and impressive form, while Liverpool’s current momentum surely makes them favourites to come fourth.
United look a million miles short of being a Champions League team, but they are fourth in the league currently for a reason. Their squad still has many title-winners in it, and their manager is a proven winner, which still clearly makes them a dangerous proposition.
Not many will expect Spurs to come ahead of two of Arsenal, Liverpool and United, but if Kane continues his hot streak and they carry on playing with their current belief, there is no reason why they can’t take advantage of some easy fixtures and pull off a surprise.
Fixture wise, United have by far the hardest run on paper and also have all their rivals for a top four spot. That can either work for or against them, of course.
Arguably Tottenham have the best fixtures, and also have no distractions from cup competitions either.
All four teams have what you would regard as winnable fixtures on the final day and it could well still be up for grabs then.
One thing’s for sure, we are set for one of the most thrilling tussles for Champions League football in the history of the Premier League.