Well, as we reach the business end of the Premier League season, the race for the top four is hotting up. While Liverpool and Manchester City trade blows and leapfrog each other as they chase the title, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are all still in the hunt for a Champions League qualifying spot for next season. So how close is this race to qualify and will it go all the way to the final day of the season?
After a masterclass from Eden Hazard against West Ham, Chelsea currently sit in third but have played a game more than all the other teams in the hunt for a Champions League place. With the Europa League still a possible route into the Champions League next season, Chelsea will be able to prioritise which competition they think will be the best route into Europe’s elite club competition next year. A huge positive from the last two league games is that Maurizio Sarri has given back to back Premier League starts to Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Both have made very strong cases to be more heavily involved in league games and they have only strengthened their claims to keep their spots for the rest of this season and into the next, especially if Eden Hazard does leave for Real Madrid. Chelsea face Liverpool next Sunday at Anfield and with games against Burnley, Manchester United, Watford and Leicester City, their run-in is not an easy one. If they can finish off the chances they create, they could be in good stead. And anything above not losing at Anfield and Old Trafford would be a huge bonus. Chelsea can still make it to the Champions League next season, be it through finishing in the top four or through the Europa League, but it is going to be tough.
Four of Arsenal’s final seven league games are away and none of them are against sides like Fulham or Huddersfield. They face Watford, Wolves, Leicester City and Burnley away. Sides who are tough to beat wherever you play them and even more so on their own patch. And Arsenal’s away form is dreadful. At home, they have a record second only to Manchester City and look capable of blowing most teams away at the Emirates. Away from home, they just don’t seem to have the same sort fight and imagination to be able to break down defences or mount any successful defence of their own. If their poor away form continues, they will miss out on the top four despite all the progress Unai Emery has made, taking over a side that was moving backwards under a tired Arsene Wenger.
To me, Tottenham shouldn’t have been allowed to play in their new stadium until next season. That will give them a bounce for the rest of the season and potentially hand them an advantage, however slim, in the race for the top four. Overall though Tottenham probably deserve to finish in the top four, because they have been in the most consistent form of anyone besides Liverpool and Manchester City. They do still have to play Manchester City in the league as well as their Champions League quarter final, but it is at their new stadium so that could give them a bounce having already beaten them there last Tuesday. Mind you, Harry Kane possibly being out for the rest of the season could have a serious effect on them for the rest of the season, but they should have enough in their squad to get them over the line and be playing Champions League football next season.
If you had told Manchester United fans in December that they would be in the quarter finals of the Champions League and competing for a top four finish, they would snapped your hand clean off. They were playing so poorly under Jose Mourinho and he had clearly lost another dressing room. As soon as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the over the reins the players freed up and played some great stuff as they went on a fantastic run to drag them selves back into contention. They have four games at home but two of them are against Chelsea and Manchester City. The results haven’t gone their way for the last couple of games either with another loss at Wolves earlier in March and a loss at home against Barcelona in the Champions League. They will need to get back to winning way and soon if they want to keep their chances of a top four finish alive.
So that’s the teams involved in the race for Champions League qualification. It’s going to be close and any slip-up from anyone will hand all the others a huge advantage. It’s not the same as winning a trophy, nowhere near, but to say you will be playing in Europe’s top club competition is a massive draw for players and fans.
We will see what happens.