[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or many observers the race for four Champions League places at the top of the Premier League is in fact a contest for just two openings as it is generally regarded that the eventual Premier League winners will be either Chelsea or Manchester City. They are without question the two best teams.
So what of the remaining two places for next season’s Champions League, notwithstanding the added potential complication of Everton and Spurs – that the winners of this season’s Europa League qualify for the senior competition in 2015-16.
As for the chasing pack, Manchester United’s recent league run, unencumbered by European football, has taken them to within five points of Manchester City. Even if United maintain their recent form, it will take a collapse of huge proportions by Pellegrini’s team for the Reds to split City and Chelsea.
Van Gaal’s re-galvanised team has leapfrogged this season’s Premier League surprise package Southampton, currently fourth. The Saints seem to have put their ‘blip’ behind them and the main bedrock on which their push for a top four place is founded is the best defence in the top flight, just 17 goals conceded in 25 games. That has to be one of the most astonishing statistics of the campaign and it may just be the deciding factor when it comes to the final positions in the table come May.
Arsenal, along with near neighbours Tottenham, are a pair of enigmas that will keep football followers, especially their own supporters, guessing until the last ball is kicked. Having said that, Spurs seem to have experienced an all round improvement by a number of individuals in their team which has provided timely support for the man of the moment, Harry Kane. One wonders what kind of ‘Plan B’ Mauricio Pochettino has in place if anything happens injury-wise to the next England centre forward.
The Gunners are at times capable of sublime football and in Santi Cazorla they have a prime candidate for both individual player of the year awards. However their defensive frailties, with echoes back to Newcastle under Kevin Keegan, suggest that they are still likely to let any team back into any game whatever lead they may establish. Throw in the injury problems that seem to be a huge albatross around Wenger’s neck and no matter how prolific Sánchez and Giroud might be, one wonders if fourth place might just be a smidgen out of reach, until next season.
Liverpool? What can be said about Liverpool that has not been written or spoken since they imploded, like Devon Loch, within touching distance of the winning tape in May?
Brendan Rodgers has a massive decision to make between the end of the campaign and the end of the next transfer window. He must either change his personnel to fit how he wants to play, or change the squad into one that can carry out his game plan/plans. One simplistic illustration of how confusing his current policy is him buying, for example, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli, and then, either not playing them or asking them to do things they have no inclination to so do.
Liverpool may be just three points shy of Southampton’s fourth place but there is a massive differential where goal difference is concerned and the Anfield outfit is unlikely to make up the 14 goal difference, so they may have to settle for a Europa League place.
At the time of writing, I feel the impending onset of a modicum of fence sitting, my Champions’ League teams, after Chelsea and Manchester City are Manchester United, in third place and Southampton in fourth.
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