As we gear up for the restart of the premier league in less than a week, the race for the top 4 spots (or should we say top 5 considering Man City’s imminent verdict on their 2 year Champions League Ban) is back on everyone’s mind. Considering Liverpool have one hand on the trophy already and Man City too will be difficult to catch up with, this leaves the next 2 (or 3) spots up for grabs. The top half of the current league standings after weekday 29 looks a bit like this (note: Man City, Sheffield, Arsenal and Aston Villa have a game in hand).
Let’s head straight into analyzing who are going to be England’s entrants into Europe’s elite competition if not the Holy Grail of Club Football. The contenders include all clubs right from the current number 3 – Leicester City right down to number 9 – Arsenal.
It’s been a remarkable renaissance since the addition of Bruno Fernandes in January. How United would have wished that they had got him last summer! Anyways now that they are on their way and look a bit like the United of old, their performance over the next few weeks will prove if they are on the path of becoming future title winners. Let the numbers speak for themselves – Unbeaten in their last 11, conceding just 2 goals (one of them a calamitous mistake by De Gea) while thumping in 29 goals. The return to fitness of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford makes them scary to line up against. Add to that the much talked about midfield pairing of Pogba and Fernandes which could walk into any of the recent Champion league winning teams is the stuff of dreams. With form and squad depth on their side, the Champions League spot is theirs to lose.
Chelsea looks a formidable side again with many key stars returning from injury. Notably, these include Tammy Abraham who has contributed 13 goals and is their clear top scorer this season (next being 6), Christian Pulisic and N’Golo Kante (the engine room). They have the required bench strength with a large squad which gives them an added advantage over teams like Sheffield United and Wolves. Notable matches in their run-in include Man City (H), Sheffield United (A), Liverpool (A) and Wolves (H). The outcome of these will prove decisive in deciding their fate for the top 4 spots.
The Foxes have one of the toughest run-ins of all fellow contenders with their last 5 matches looking like this – Arsenal (A), Bournemouth (A), Sheffield United (H), Tottenham (A) and Manchester United (H). They have won just 7 out of 14 games on the road which might dent their chances of a top 4 finish. Squad depth is another area where they lack top class reinforcements in multiple positions and with the games coming in thick and fast, staying in the Champions League spots looks difficult. Their form prior to the stoppage too would back this view, with Leicester picking up only 8 points out of a possible 18.
Last season’s Champions League finalists have had a torrid season. The sacking of fan favorite Pochettino and getting the Special One Jose Mourinho on board has seen a big shift in their playing style. They did show some promise when Mourinho took control. However, things hit a speed bump when fellow contenders Chelsea and Wolves came along. The upcoming game against Man United is all about hitting the ground running. Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son are back which should be a big boost for them. However, Dele Alli will miss out through suspension. One wonders though, if the gap is a little too much to claw themselves back into contention.
Mikel Arteta has taken hold and steadied the drifting ship which Arsenal have been for the last few years. Arsenal have the second best form in the league considering the last 6 games. They have dropped just 6 points while winning the last 3 league games. Consistency is what is required, considering they have very tricky final 10 fixtures against Man City (A), Wolves (A), Leicester (H), Tottenham (A) and Liverpool (H). The task at hand looks daunting and Arsenal will need all their big guns to start firing, particularly Aubameyang. But you never know what to expect when it is Arsenal you are playing against.
Last season’s Championship runners-up have been mixing it up with the big boys of the Premier League. Such has been their level of performances that if they win their game in hand against Villa they will leap frog Manchester United into 5th spot which will be quite an achievement. They sure have been way short on goals scoring just 30 goals in 28 games. However what they have done right this season is maintaining their defensive shape. They have the second best defensive record in the league (25 goals conceded in 28 games) behind only – you guessed it right – Liverpool. All this considering their only well recognizable defender is Everton veteran Phil Jagielka. The lack of goals is going to show and Sheffield may just fall short of the Champions League spots.
Nuno Espirito Santo has really done a great job with Wolves this season, considering that they have been playing mid-week in the Europa league. Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota and Reuben Neves have been revelations taking the league by storm. In most criteria like shots on target per game, big chances created, possession won in the final 3rd, etc. they are proving to be just a top half of the table team. Playing in the Champions League might be a bit of a step up considering the teams up the standings have players who can grab a game by the scruff of its neck – Wolves lack that. Another season in the Europa league beckons.
Manchester United and Chelsea appear to be walking away with the 3rd and 4th positions. Leicester may still be able to play Champions League football depending on the outcome of Manchester City’s appeal on their 2 year Champions League ban. Tottenham and Arsenal are the best of the rest fighting it out for the Europa League spots.