Premier League top-four race is wild and now enters a crunch period

West Ham and Chelsea are flying, Spurs, Liverpool and Everton are in freefall and Villa and Arsenal are STILL in the mix… so who WILL win this year’s enthralling battle for a place in the Top Four?

  • The race for the Premier League top four looks set to go down to the final day
  • After a mixed round of results, the complexion of it all has altered significantly 
  • West Ham produced an emphatic win and Chelsea won again for Thomas Tuchel
  • Liverpool and Everton are starting to struggle ahead of a Merseyside derby
  • The next burst of games looks crucial to many of the contenders’ hopes 
  • Sportsmail takes a look at how the Champions League contenders stack up 

Eight points. That’s all that separates Arsenal, way down in 10th, with Chelsea, now up in fourth. 

Both harbour Champions League ambitions and then, of course, there is all of those in between: West Ham, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham.

All believe they have a chance and given how this top-four race is developing, there is no reason to suggest this is not going to go down to the final 90 minutes of the season. 

Chelsea continued their revival on Monday as they elevated themselves into the top four

Current champions Liverpool have seen form collapse this season and now have to fight

Now is not the time to trip over your own feet and yet there are plenty of woes on Merseyside on the eve of a derby at Anfield. Everton are struggling, as are Liverpool.

Then there are Manchester United, stuttering to a draw at West Brom and seeing their crown as the best of the rest slipping with a chasing pack on their tail.

The optimism now is in London – west and east London to be exact – where an unbeaten Thomas Tuchel has Chelsea on song and West Ham, with the experience of David Moyes, finding gears rivals seem to stall in.

Sportsmail goes through each of the top-four contenders after another fascinating round of Premier League fixtures. 

MANCHESTER UNITED 

Current position: 2nd Points: 46 

Manchester United should – and most likely, will – make it but results like a 1-1 draw at West Brom last time out don’t help.

Harry Maguire felt hard done by, felt decisions didn’t go their way, but he was offside even if he didn’t think he committed a foul when he claimed for a penalty. 

United were, whether they agree now or not, in title contention a matter of weeks ago. In fact, as City got their act together United sat top. 

Now the focus seems tuned on finishing best of the rest and not allowing a season to unravel with a host of teams on their tail. 

Harry Maguire (left) moaned at decisions but Manchester United must not now make excuses

The CIES Football Observatory’s projected table has United second on 72 points, 26 more than they have right now. 

The issue for United is they are stuttering at just the wrong time.

One win in their last five league games – that 9-0 demolition job on Southampton – is cause for great concern. Taking that win out of it they have earned three points from a possible 12 – just not good enough.

‘We won’t let them (City) run away with it,’ Solskjaer said after the West Brom draw. 

‘We’re playing them soon, and we’re not giving it away early. This season is so unpredictable, of course we aren’t going to settle for second.’

He said all the right things but with Chelsea, City and West Ham three of their next four in the league, he needs to be careful he is not blinded by ambition and pride. 

City are, to put it blunt, a class apart from all their rivals right now and are deservedly top. United are stumbling and if that continues against top-four rivals, there will be a storm brewing at Old Trafford.

As much as they should make the top four, a four-point gap is far from comforting by way of a safety net. Form has to change. 

Thursday night’s 4-0 hammering of Real Sociedad in Turin – inspired by – who else? – two-goal Bruno Fernandes was a real statement that United are ready to do just that – but now it’s time to prove it in the league.

TOP FOUR ODDS (via Betfair): 1/4 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (right) knows United must turn form around to avoid a top-four dogfight

Bruno Fernandes scored twice in the Europa League on Thursday and he remains the key man

LEICESTER CITY

Current position: 3rd Points: 46 

Until the season ends and Leicester are inside the top four, there will be doubters.

They impressed last season until they threw it away, on the final day, to Manchester United. It meant Thursday night in Europe instead of Tuesday and Wednesday. It felt disappointing, above all else, given how the majority of the season played out.

Brendan Rodgers will not need reminders of how they shot themselves in the foot. Neither will Jamie Vardy. 

The question now is: have they learned a very painful lesson? 

Victory over Liverpool suggests they have. Liverpool played well but the win was emphatic in the end, a two-goal margin between the sides.

Jamie Vardy (left) is slowing no signs of slowing down as he guides Leicester to the top three

It took them four clear of the chasing pack, a small but still significant buffer of a game. 

They have more wins than Manchester United but fewer draws and more defeats and the key now is consistency. 

Villa, Arsenal, Brighton and Sheffield United represent four very winnable league games before they need to take on the might of Man City – who they hammered at the Etihad earlier this season – at the King Power Stadium.

‘I said before the (Liverpool) game it would be a good measure of the development of the team,’ Rodgers said. ‘A year ago, going behind would have disappointed us. But our reaction throughout the game was very good.

‘In the 4-0 game last year, we actually started the game really well. But as soon as we went behind, we got too frustrated and ended up losing convincingly. This time when we went behind, we still had the confidence and the mentality to keep pushing.’

Rodgers believes things are different from 12 months ago, now he and his players have to prove it is so. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 8/15 

Vardy (right) is fit and firing and Leicester must prove they learned lessons from 12 months ago

CHELSEA

Current position: 4th Points: 42 

Thomas Tuchel appears to have the Midas touch. 

Returning to a back-three system, Tuchel’s new regime has delivered 13 points out of a possible 15, and Chelsea have conceded just one goal in that run. 

Monday night’s 2-0 win over Newcastle took Chelsea back into the top four ahead of a crucial month for their season and any fears at the end of Frank Lampard’s reign that they were set to miss out on Europe have quickly been eased by the German tactician.

‘We will never stop pushing, there’s no other way,’ said Tuchel. ‘We knew if we got results this could be on the step for us.

‘If we won today we knew we’d be in the top four. But I can only tell everybody there’s still a long way to go. 

Chelsea have found their groove again with Thomas Tuchel putting them back on track

‘Many teams are very, very close. There’s a lot of big games to play and many points to win.

‘Now for me it’s important we take two days off and recover mentally and physically and then prepare 100 per cent for Southampton, it’s the next challenge.’

Tuchel will lose eventually, you would think, but few would bet against a Chelsea side making the top four in this sort of form. 

Tuchel’s first big test was the win away at Tottenham and he will need similar performances with Manchester United and Everton two of the next three in the league. 

Tuchel has an embarrassment of riches that are now starting to maximise their potential. 

If this is Chelsea still pushing and going through the gears, they may become a train nobody can stop between now and May.  

TOP FOUR ODDS: 8/11 

Unbeaten since Tuchel took over, Mason Mount and Co look strong contenders for the top four

WEST HAM

Current position: 5th Points: 42 

‘The teams around us are top, top teams and we are going to have to play incredibly well to be there,’ David Moyes said on Monday night. 

‘But I think we’ve got another gear or two to what we’ve shown tonight.’

Take that as a warning. West Ham are serious in this top-four hunt and nobody can convince them otherwise.  

‘We’ve got five games before April and if we make it to there it might start hotting up. But it nearly feels uneasy talking like this,’ the Scot added. 

West Ham’s fine form continued as they swatted aside Sheffield United on Monday evening

‘I can’t say how well the players have done and I think we have another level. It’s a very good result, very few teams will get three goals against Sheffield United.’

Only goal difference is keeping them out of the top four now but the challenge now is sustaining, finding this extra gear that Moyes says they are capable of.   

The next four games, like they are for many teams, are of huge importance. 

Tottenham, Manchester City, Leeds and then Manchester United is the quartet of games to come and this is the biggest examination of their credentials. 

Come through with seven or more points and suddenly the belief will rise again. 

Set off on a losing run and the bubble may be burst on the top-four pursuit.   

TOP FOUR ODDS: 15/2

Ryan Fredericks capped off a fine performance with the third goal as West Ham went fifth

LIVERPOOL

Current position: 6th Points: 40 

As Jurgen Klopp sat down to take on reporters’ questions after losing to Leicester, he was left uttering the words he would have hoped he’d never have to say all season.  

‘Yes, I’m conceding,’ said Klopp, in a lowered tone, when asked if the title race was dead and buried for his squad. ‘I don’t think we can close the gap to City.’ 

He added: ‘We are not worrying about the title. We are not silly. We have a tough game on Tuesday (vs RB Leipzig) and then again on Saturday we have the derby. These are the things we are thinking about and if we still want to have a good season then we have to win.’ 

In their run to the title last season, Liverpool were often called ‘mentality monsters’, ruthlessly efficient as they steamrolled teams. Somehow, someway, Klopp and his players need their swagger back or the top four could slip away from them. 

Jurgen Klopp conceded the title defence was over after his side were beaten by Leicester City

For 70 minutes at Leicester they could argue they were the better team. When the final whistle went they had lost 3-1. 

Results are all any side in this race needs right now and Liverpool just aren’t getting them. 

In fact, Liverpool have 30 points fewer than they did after the same number of games on the way to the title 12 months ago. Injuries have played a huge part but even so, missing out on Europe would be a devastating decline in one year.

Klopp said this week he doesn’t need a break after growing concerns following the passing of his mother and with the title conceded, the German must hope his announcement can have a galvanising effect on his side in the top-four race. 

They may be in abysmal form – taking just nine points from a possible 30 and losing four of their last six league matches – but there is little else like a Merseyside derby to see the momentum shift right back in their direction.

Klopp must stop the rot – and fast.  

TOP FOUR ODDS: 2/5 

Liverpool find themselves in abysmal form and have lost four of their last six league matches

EVERTON

Current position: 7th Points: 37 

Complacency is killing Everton and while Carlo Ancelotti vowed to prepare for the Fulham game as if he was preparing for Barcelona are Inter Milan, it didn’t do all that good. 

No fans at Goodison Park is playing a part. The Toffees’ have a brilliant support which creates an incredible atmosphere but every team is without their home support. 

It can be no excuse as to why, after losing to City on Wednesday, they have lost four of their last five home league games, drawing the other to Leicester.

They lost, with respect, to West Ham, Newcastle and Fulham, two of which will be marooned in the bottom half come the final day. 

That was supposed to be a kind run, a chance to pad out their points before the really tricky ties came round. Instead Everton are left to rue missed opportunity after missed opportunity.  

Everton’s home form is hampering their European hopes and the games do not get easier now

And that has dented the bookies’ confidence, seeing them slip out to 20/1 to make the top four. 

One of their two games in hand came on Wednesday against the imperious City. Given the way Fulham – more specifically, Harrison Reed and Josh Maja – dismantled them, expectation for an Everton win was close to none. 

Next it is the simple matter of a Merseyside derby at Anfield. Southampton and then Tuchel’s Chelsea come after that.  

Ancelotti still has hope but lose the next two and there won’t be many of an Everton persuasion left agreeing with him. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 20/1 

Josh Maja impressed as he scored both goals to secure Fulham’s 2-0 win at Goodison Park

ASTON VILLA

Current position: 8th Points: 36 

With the easiest run of games among the contenders, on paper at least, a stalemate at Brighton was not how Aston Villa wanted their charge into the top four to begin. 

The Seagulls are no pushovers, not under Graham Potter, but there is a sense that Villa really need to seize their opportunities with the margins so fine to win a fiercely competitive Champions League race. 

Two games in hand is the key here. While rivals play themselves into a tizz, throw away expected points and waste opportunity after opportunity, Villa know exactly what they need to climb the table.

As things stand, Dean Smith’s side know that winning both of their games in hand would take them level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea. It cannot be any clearer that that.  

Aston Villa face just one team above them between now and April 10 and must make that count

And so Villa’s critics, those who believe that this side do not have a realistic shot of making it, must think again. This side have as much chance as any in the race and they certainly think so. 

Smith remains firmly in the conversation for Manager of the Year given the job he has done – now it is about capping off the season with a stunning European finish.

Villa are an ambitious club with a rich history. Co-owner Nassef Sawiris signed off spending of £150m on new players before the 2019-20 season and £80m more last summer.

‘Our owners came out at the start of the season, and when they first came to the club, about what they are looking to build towards,’ Smith said earlier this season.

‘It takes time but hopefully we can continue building what we believe can help us reach the heights of a top-four football club.’ 

Only one game against a side above them between now and April 10. If Villa really are going to climb the mountain, the time is now to make their move.  

TOP FOUR ODDS: 9/1

Dean Smith (left), John Terry (centre) and Craig Shakespeare (right) are impressing at Villa

TOTTENHAM

Current position: 9th Points: 36 

In mid-December, Tottenham were top and questions were being asked… could Jose Mourinho really do it again?

It’s now mid-February and the answer seems to be a firm no. 

Not only were Tottenham beaten by Manchester City at the weekend, it wasn’t close. City were a class apart and even Mourinho could have few complaints when he shuffled in front of the TV cameras post-match to talk it through.

Defeat leaves them ninth, on 36 points, and six points off the top four. 

‘I do worry where Tottenham are in terms of getting back to a top-four club,’ Jamie Carragher told Sky’s Monday Night Football show. 

‘I think they are a long way from that. And the actual football they are playing to get there, they need to have results to play like that and they are not getting results at this moment.’

Jose Mourinho’s job is under increasing pressure as Tottenham risk missing out on Europe

Mourinho was brought in by chairman Daniel Levy to increase the likelihood of winning major titles. Now they are months away from missing out on European football entirely.

As Sportsmail revealed on Monday, Mourinho‘s position as Tottenham boss is under increasing scrutiny after this dismal run, which has seen them eliminated from the FA Cup and beaten by City in back-to-back games. 

The team’s worrying downturn, which has seen them pick up just 12 points from their last 12 league games, is now a significant cause for concern among the Spurs hierarchy.

The Portuguese’s job is not under any immediate threat but the pressure gauge is beginning to enter the dangerous red zone. Mourinho needs results – and fast. 

The 4-1 Europa League win against RZ Pellets was a step in the right direction, albeit against limited opposition, especially as Gareth Bale finally showed a glimpse of what he can really do.

Sunday’s trip to in-form West Ham feels huge and will be telling as to which side really is the threat on the outside looking in right now. Bale, who was subbed off on Thursday to save him for West Ham, could yet be key.

TOP FOUR ODDS:  9/2

Spurs were outclassed by Manchester City and now face a defining game away to West Ham

Gareth Bale (left) finally hit form in the Europa League – so can he take that to West Ham?

ARSENAL   

Current position: 10th Points: 34  

A fit and firing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang means Arsenal have one thing: hope. 

On his day the Gabonese star can be the finest striker in the Premier League. He’s a world-class talent who has lost his way this season, albeit with mitigating factors away from the pitch due to his mother’s illness. 

But now he seems refreshed and ready to breathe life into Arsenal’s unlikely quest to secure European football for 2020-21.

The odds are stacked against them given they are 10th in the middle of February, ahead of a Leeds side who have a game in hand on them. 

Arsenal got their mojo back against Leeds as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck a hat-trick

Sky Sports’ Graeme Souness savaged Mikel Arteta’s side prior to the 4-2 win over Leeds and it is yet more evidence that there is little to no belief outside of north London that the Gunners will have any say in this top-four fight.

‘I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. That says everything,’ Souness said.

‘Arsenal are of one of the big clubs historically and right now they’re mid-table and appear to be going nowhere. That’s how I’d describe them.’

Five of their next six league games – Man City, Leicester, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham – come against sides above them and so also in the fight. 

If Arteta and Co really are going to pull off something spectacular, it will be the next six games which make or break which direction this group are heading. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 17/1 

Mikel Arteta’s side still have plenty of doubters but they are preparing for a defining six games




Share this article


Source: Read Full Article