4 teams battle for final 2 Champions League places – Premier League talking points

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Another enthralling round of Premier League football played out over the weekend, as the 2015/16 campaign nears its finale.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Boxing Day, Saturday, December 26, 2015: Leicester City's manager Claudio Ranieri before the Premier League match against Liverpool at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

After a long and arduous international break, the Premier League returned to break the monotony with a full programme of fixtures over the weekend.

With a handful of games left to play in 2015/16, the race for the title, European qualification and, crucially, survival remain undecided, though as we reach a climax the picture is becoming clearer.

Another 1-0 win for Leicester City, this time at home to Southampton, pushed Claudio Ranieri’s side seven points clear at the top of the table, while Man City, Arsenal and Man United all reinforced their claims for a top-four finish with wins—over Bournemouth, Watford and Everton respectively.

Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United both dropped points, however, drawing with Liverpool and Crystal Palace.

At the bottom of the table, Newcastle United and Sunderland both secured a single point, while defeat for Aston Villa and victory for Norwich City saw the relegation gulf increase.

Here are five talking points from the Premier League weekend.

 

Consistency the Key for Leicester City

Leicester’s triumph at the King Power Stadium on Sunday afternoon was their fourth consecutive 1-0 victory, as Claudio Ranieri’s side continue to grind out results on their push for an unlikely title win.

An excellent header from captain Wes Morgan sealed the three points for the Foxes—the centre-back’s first for the season, having played the full 90 minutes in all 32 of Leicester’s league outings so far.

Morgan’s ubiquity is symbolic of Leicester’s approach under Ranieri this season, as the Italian has opted for consistency in his selection throughout.

Ranieri has used just 23 players in his league squad so far this season, with only 14 making more than 15 appearances; by contrast, Liverpool have used 29.

Without the congestion of European competition, Leicester are able to name a consistent starting lineup for the majority of their league games.

It almost worked for Liverpool in 2013/14, but could the Foxes go one better?

 

Big Clubs Show An Admirable Faith in Youth

As teamsheets flooded out over the weekend, an encouraging sight came with a number of youth talents being named in the starting lineups for Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

This comes despite each side’s battle for European qualification continues—albeit Chelsea‘s chances of finishing fifth are slim—and each manager’s faith in youth was rewarded with a number of promising performances.

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink fielded 20-year-old centre-back Matt Miazga, 19-year-old midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek and 20-year-old Brazilian winger Kenedy, while the Dutchman brought on 18-year-old defender Jake Clarke-Salter as a second-half substitute.

Meanwhile, Marcus Rashford started up front for United, with Louis van Gaal introducing Timothy Fosu-Mensah at half-time, and Alex Iwobi joined the Arsenal attack in his second league start.

Most notably, both Loftus-Cheek and Iwobi got themselves on the scoresheet in emphatic 4-0 victories, slotting in comfortably alongside their senior colleagues.

Add this group to the usual suspects (Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Emre Can etc.) at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, and it is clear that age is no longer a necessary factor in top-level success.

 

Crystal Palace Sinking Into Relegation Territory

It seems remarkable to note, but with Palace’s 2-2 draw at home to West Ham, Alan Pardew’s Eagles continued to fall closer to the Premier League‘s relegation zone.

Palace have now taken 34 points from 31 games, sitting in 16th, and are just seven points ahead of 18th-placed Sunderland.

While it is unlikely that Sunderland, Newcastle or Villa turn their form around significantly enough to push out of the relegation zone at the business end of the season, Pardew must be feeling the heat at this crucial stage.

Palace are yet to win in the league in 2016, despite Pardew’s squad being built on strong foundations and littered with impressive, match-winning talents like Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha.

Having begun the season with an outside chance of European qualification, and seemingly a dead cert for a top-half finish, Palace find themselves in a worrying position.

 

Roberto Martinez Nearing the Chop at Goodison Park?

After starting the campaign so promisingly, Roberto Martinez’s Everton have descended in a tactical farce of lethargy and incoherence.

Sunday’s 1-0 defeat away to Man United showed fleeting signs of quality, most notably in the positive attacking play of Gerard Deulofeu and a resolute showing from centre-back John Stones.

But as Anthony Martial’s strike consigned them to defeat, it was another familiar afternoon for Everton supporters.

This leaves the Toffees clinging to their FA Cup semi-final clash with one of United or West Ham as their only hope for a strong end to 2015/16, and after an 11th-placed finish last season, this can’t be enough.

Despite such a bright start, Everton have regressed under Martinez, and the Spaniard is may well be edging perilously close to dismissal.

 

Top Four Remains a Six-Horse Race as Hammers Endure

Though Cheikhou Kouyate’s second-half red card saw West Ham drop points away to Palace on Saturday, another point earned sees the Hammers continue their unlikely push for Champions League football next season.

Slaven Bilic’s side are just two points behind fifth-placed Man United and three behind fourth-placed Man City at this stage, while Arsenal sit just seven points ahead of their London rivals.

While Leicester seem guaranteed to at least secure a top-four placing in 2015/16, with Spurs held to a 1-1 draw at Anfield on Saturday evening, the other three spots are yet to be decided.

Arsenal, City, United and West Ham all have seven games left to play, and each will be confident of triumphing in their push for Champions League qualification.

Liverpool, meanwhile, find their campaign for fifth place growing increasingly futile.

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