With ten games to go in the Premier League, the race for the top four standings is well and truly beginning to hot up. Chelsea and Manchester City currently occupy the top two slots, and barring an unprecedented collapse by either, seem well positioned to finish the season in the same spots they currently occupy, although there still exists a slight opportunity that City may be displaced from their current second place standing.
For the rest of the chasing pack, things are much more uncertain. With Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton all in with a shout of securing what will most likely be the two remaining spots available, we take a look at the relative claims of the contenders.
Currently sitting in third, the Gunners are most people’s favourites to secure an 18th consecutive ticket to next season’s Champion League group stages. Their strength in depth and attacking quality are the main attributes giving them a slight edge over their rivals. In addition, the presence of most of the seasoned campaigners that have kept intact their record of finishing in the top four in recent seasons means that they are likely to be unfazed by the challenge. Their main drawbacks, however, have to be their inconsistency both within games and through the season amid persistent defensive frailty. A relatively benign fixture schedule which sees them play six of their remaining ten games at home may give them a slight advantage over their nearest rivals. This is tempered however, by the existence of plenty of potential banana skins amongst their remaining games with those against West Ham(H), Burnley (A) as well as more difficult opponents like Liverpool and Chelsea both at home and Manchester United away particularly coming to mind.
The Red Devils have been nothing if not consistent in churning out results, even if their general play still leaves plenty to be desired for those reared on the staple of swashbuckling football and regular tussles for titles of the Ferguson years. An excellent goalkeeper and the possession of several potential match-winners such as Rooney, Di Maria, Falcao and Robin Van Persie are their major strengths, even if the last two have failed to fire in recent weeks. The major hurdle for them will be the tough run of fixtures that will see them take on Tottenham (H), Liverpool (A), Man City (H), Chelsea (A) and Everton (A), in March and April. If they can call on their big players to rise to the occasion, they may just manage to sneak into the top four places come the end of May, although one suspects in order to do that, their all-round play needs to improve considerably, and pretty quickly too.
The merseysiders are the form team at the moment, playing an exciting brand of high-energy attacking football that has won plenty of plaudits from neutrals as well as trepidation from their rivals. Suffice it to say, no other team in the Premier League fancies playing Liverpool at the moment. The only potential downside will be what the psychological impact of a failure to achieve a minimum top four place at the end of the season will hold for the Brendan Rodgers project. If they keep on playing the way they have been playing recently though, they are a shoo-in for ending up at least in fourth place.
The revelation that has been Harry Kane continues to give Mauricio Pochettino’s side an extra dimension and means they are a wild card for securing a final top four berth. Of course others, notably Christian Erikssen, Nabil Bentaleb and Nacer Chadli have all played a part, but it is the young Englishman’s contribution at critical periods(including big games against Chelsea and Arsenal) that is most responsible for putting them in their current enviable position.
The difficulty for Spurs will lie in the fact that they will need to show almost imperious form in the last ten games of the season in order to dislodge the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United from their more lofty positions on the table. A relatively kind fixture list in addition to the their uncluttered schedule following their exit from the Europa league means that finishing in the top four is not out of the bounds of possibility for them. However, they have to play out of their skins and avoid the kind of defensive errors that have been somewhat a feature of their campaign so far.
The team from the south coast are the undoubted dark horses of the race for the top four slots. Whatever happens from here on in, this season will have been a mightily impressive one for the Saints, who many predicted would struggle following the summer departures of several of their top players from the last campaign. The tailing off of Graziano Pelle’s form is a major source of worry as they head into the home stretch, and the presence of difficult ties against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham amongst their last ten games means they have to be considered rank outsiders to make the final cut. Any of their opponents who chose to discount them however, can only do so at their peril.
Arsenal and Liverpool to finish third and fourth, although Tottenham may run them close.