Who is going to finish in the top four this season appears to be the closest battle with Chelsea looking imperious and the current bottom three struggling to escape the drop. But with less than two months of the campaign remaining, which of the challengers are best positioned to gain that big financial windfall?
A closer look at each side’s remaining fixtures, current injury lists and outstanding commitments should provide a better assessment of who’s best placed to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Chelsea – Phenomenally consistent in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge. A winning streak of 13 on the bounce saw the Stamford Bridge side create a gap between them and the chasers at the top of the table, which has since been extended to 10-points.
Tottenham – Proving last season wasn’t just a flash in the pan with another strong campaign under Mauricio Pochettino despite a lack of impact from their summer signings. Spurs will be looking to have another shot at the Champions League following this season’s disappointing attempt that prematurely ended at the group stage.
Man City – Pep Guardiola’s 10 wins in all competitions at the start of the season gave a sense of hope and expectation that diminished after some stuttering results, particularly at home. A seven-game unbeaten run in the league has repositioned City amongst the top three, a point ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand.
Liverpool – Jürgen Klopp’s men were seen as Chelsea’s biggest rivals at the turn of the year but a dour turn in form has seen the Reds fall off the pace. Although, one loss in their last five appears to have somewhat steadied the ship.
Man Utd – The big money signings and appointment of José Mourinho brought the X-factor back to Old Trafford. But United have drawn too many matches and continue to be chasing despite an impressive 18-game unbeaten run.
Arsenal – There’s turmoil at the Emirates with an increasing number of supporters calling for Arsène Wenger to leave the club he’s served for over 20 years. Constantly finishing in the top four but failing to mount a serious title challenge in years has seen many a protest against the Frenchman which has started to transfer onto the field. The Gunners seem out of ammunition having lost four of the last five league matches.
Everton – Outsiders for a top four push, Ronald Koeman has enjoyed a solid first season with the league’s top scorer, Romelu Lukaku leading the line. The Toffees overcame a patchy set of results from late-September to mid-December with one defeat in their last 12 as they remain on the tails of the top six.
Below is a closer look at each of the candidates’ fixture lists with each game allocated one of four categories dependent on that team’s current position in the league.
Of course, some of this is subjective but it gives a clearer visual as to which candidate has the easier run in. Man Utd for example have to play five out of the six fellow candidates, the last three of which are away from home.
Everton and Arsenal are next in terms of matches against the top sides with four fixtures against their nearest rivals. Meanwhile, Liverpool, only have the Merseyside derby this weekend before embarking on a final eight-game streak which doesn’t include any of the top seven.
On paper at least, it doesn’t bode well for the chasing trio of Man Utd, Arsenal and Everton who will be looking to displace the current occupants of fourth spot, Liverpool.
Aside from The Reds, Tottenham’s run-in appears favourable, with their two rival matches taking place at White Hart Lane where Spurs are on a club-record run of 10 league wins in a row. Three of their remaining six away matches are at relegation battlers while one of the harder contests will be Saturday’s trip to Burnley’s fortress, Turf Moor.
The next two matches for Guardiola’s City could solidify or jeopardise their position in the top three with a trip to leaders Chelsea following this Sunday’s visit to the Emirates.
There’s a strong case to argue that those in grey (mid-table sides) are a preferred opposition as they have little to play for. Given the current league standings, it’s hard for any team to break into the top-seven, with eighth-placed West Brom seven-points shy of Everton. Whereas the relegation fight is really just between the current bottom five following Leicester’s return to form under Craig Shakespeare.
One team that’s slipping towards the relegation zone is Watford, who have managed just two wins from their last 13 league matches. Only Man Utd and Arsenal don’t have to play the Hornets before the end of this campaign which could ensure a nervous finish for Walter Mazzarri.
Should results reflect the first round of fixtures, Chelsea would storm to the title by finishing just shy of 100-points, a full 19 clear of second-placed Tottenham. There would be no change to the current positions despite Man Utd and Arsenal having two-games in hand on Liverpool.
But taking the average points per game so far and multiplying that by the number of remaining fixtures sees Liverpool and Man Utd separated by only 0.19 points. Again, the positions don’t change but this at least emphasises how one slip can make all the difference. Something those from the red half of Merseyside will attest.
Manchester at home
The two Manchester sides were tipped to challenge for the title following the high-profile appointments of two of the game’s most successful managers along with some lavish summer spending. But one of the reasons that has failed to materialise is their respective home forms which upon reflection are far from impressive.
Reflecting as far back as Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign, demonstrates their struggles to convert home matches into home wins. As it stands, Man City are averaging fewer points than any of the previous four seasons at the Etihad. The Citizens can only match their lowest number of wins if they manage to win all of their remaining five matches. This is in part due to Guardiola’s men not killing games off when in control. Three noticeable examples came against Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham, all of which are challenging at the top end of the league.
The Red Devils, meanwhile, are registering a home form only worsened by David Moyes’ post-Ferguson stint as manager during the 2013/14 which coincided with the club’s lowest Premier League finish. Like their neighbours, Mourinho has bemoaned his side’s luck having failed to convert their dominance into victories against the likes of Burnley, Stoke, Hull and Bournemouth.
Below shows a table which highlights just how far United and City are behind compared to their top-seven rivals. The two lowest scorers have accumulated the two lowest average points per home game.
To achieve a top-four finish, both sides will need to adopt a more ruthless approach to hosting their opponents who more often than not leave Manchester with at least a point.
Injuries & Commitments
A club’s season can be rocked by the sudden loss of a player through injury. So far, Conte has had very few disruptions to his Chelsea side, particularly in terms of fitness. Tottenham have recently lost top scorer Harry Kane for a short spell on the sidelines but the England international is expected to return soon.
Gabriel Jesus’ arrival at Man City got everyone excited as the Brazilian temporarily kept Sergio Aguero out of the side until he broke his metatarsal in February. But such is City’s squad depth, Jesus’ absence has hardly been noticed.
Liverpool showed the lack of quality within their first-team when top scorer Sadio Mané went to represent Senegal in the African Cup of Nations in January. But with no further commitments beyond the league, Klopp’s side should benefit from extended time on the training field. They’ll just need Henderson, and now Lallana, to return to action sooner rather than later.
At Old Trafford, Mourinho has been dealt a number of minor injuries. The additional fixtures in the Europa League and F.A. Cup will see his deep squad fully tested as they could potentially play double the number of matches Liverpool have (18 to nine).
Wenger often has to deal with an injury crisis at the Emirates but the current list isn’t too destructive. Santi Cazorla has spent the vast majority of the season on the sidelines while Petr Cech’s recent injury prior to the international break shouldn’t rule out the former Chelsea keeper for too long.
Everton have probably been hit the hardest due to their naturally smaller squad and the caliber of players missing. Record signing Yannick Bolasie suffered a knee injury earlier in the season but Seamus Coleman’s recent leg-break against Wales could play a vital role in the Toffees good form slowing down.
As exciting as it could potentially be with high pressures on every team during each game, particularly those from second to sixth, the current top four looks the most likely outcome.
At the moment, Man Utd appear to be the biggest challengers but will probably fall short due to their poor home form and a challenging set of remaining fixtures, which could increase thanks to success in other competitions. Success that via the Europa League could actually provide their easiest pathway to next season’s Champions League.
Liverpool are the most vulnerable amongst the top four, but their fixture list and lack of extra commitments should put them in a strong position to claim Champions League qualification for only the second time since 2009. However, the Reds have already shown how their form can suddenly plummet, and they’ve struggled against teams further down the table since December, which could provide a small opening for United and possibly a resurgent Arsenal.
What we know for sure is that there are plenty of teams looking to take advantage of any dropped points from now until the 21st May. With 11 games between the top four candidates still remaining, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to exploit.