With just three games remaining, the contest for a place in next season’s Champions League could hardly be closer. It is, at least, a little less complex.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to overturn Manchester City’s two-year ban from European competition means that only third-place and fourth-place Premier League finishes will be enough to join Pep Guardiola’s side and champions Liverpool in the competition.
Two of Chelsea, Leicester City, Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers will miss out in what is proving to be one of the tightest top-four races in recent memory.
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Five points separate the four contenders, with just two points between the first three. And by some strange twist of fate, two pairs of them will play against each other on the final day of the season.
By calculating the weighted points-per-game of every Premier League side, we can estimate the difficulty of each side’s run-in.
Current position: 3rd
Opponent PPG: 1.45
14/07 Norwich (H)
22/07 Liverpool (A)
26/07 Wolves (H)
Chelsea have the most varied run-in of the four contenders and will be confident of starting their final three games well by picking up three points against Norwich City at Stamford Bridge. Daniel Farke’s side are likely to be bereft of confidence after their relegation was confirmed at the weekend.
Travelling to Anfield is an altogether different proposition, but maybe this is not a bad time to play Liverpool. The champions dropped their first home points of the season against Burnley on Saturday and could have nothing left to play once Frank Lampard’s side visit, though it is far from an ideal fixture.
And unless results elsewhere go their way, failing to get a result at Anfield would most likely mean that they require something from their meeting with Wolves at Stamford Bridge on the final day. Home advantage could be key – if it makes any difference at all, in the Covid era – but Nuno’s side are essentially as good on their travels as they are at Molineux anyway.
Current position: 4th
Opponent PPG: 1.53
16/07 Sheffield United (H)
19/07 Tottenham (A)
26/07 Manchester United (H)
To use an old football cliche, if you had told Leicester City and Brendan Rodgers at the start of the season that they would need three wins from their last three games to qualify for next season’s Champions League, they would’ve taken it.
And fortunately for them, that is the only reason why their record during the second half of the season is not being labelled one of the biggest collapses in Premier League history. Leicester have won three of their last 14 league games, having won 14 of their first 21.
Three remain and they are not particularly easy, on paper at least. Sheffield United are weaker on the road than at home, but are still hardly the sort of visitors you want when you need wins. Tottenham have their issues meanwhile, though have the top flight’s fourth-best home record.
Given how poorly they’re playing though, Leicester will just be happy if they are still in contention on the final day. That could bring a straight shoot-out for a top-four place with United, and it is not currently a game that you would back Rodgers’s side to win.
Current position: 5th
Opponent PPG: 1.3
16/07 Crystal Palace (A)
22/07 West Ham (H)
26/07 Leicester (A)
A stoppage-time home draw with Southampton on Monday night sapped some of the momentum built up by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side during the restart, though Manchester United cannot afford to let their promising form desert them now that the top-four race is getting tighter.
United have not finished a round of fixtures inside the Champions League places since September but could easily climb above Chelsea and/or Leicester by taking maximum points from their next two games, which are both ones that Solskjaer’s side would normally be expected to win.
And despite Monday’s blip, United will feel confident that they are still the form team in this race. If that is still the case by the time of their trip to Leicester on the final day, and if the top-four race still hangs in the balance at that point, you would expect them to come through on top.
Current position: 6th
Opponent PPG: 1.49
15/07 Burnley (A)
20/07 Crystal Palace (H)
26/07 Chelsea (A)
Five points adrift, Wolves have a lot of work to do. Back-to-back defeats against Arsenal and Sheffield United severely damaged their hopes of qualifying even before news of City’s successful appeal broke on Monday morning. With just two places now up for grabs rather than three, their hopes have diminished further.
But before they become resigned to missing out on a top-four finish, they have to travel to Turf Moor. Burnley have remote European ambitions of their own, with seventh-place not entirely off the cards, and Sean Dyche’s men have lost just one of their last 13 games. That will not be easy.
Crystal Palace at home is a kinder fixture, though with Sheffield United breathing down their necks, the likelihood is that whether Wolves return to European competition or not next season will be settled at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. That will be a test but, for one of the top flight’s better away teams, not an intimidating one.
Who has the toughest run-in?
Leicester’s run-in is marginally tougher than those of Chelsea and Wolves on paper, while United’s is comfortably the easiest. Not one of these teams picks up points consistently and according to expectation though, which is why this season could yet produce the lowest Premier League points tally for a third-place team yet.
United’s favourable schedule perhaps gives them the edge over Chelsea and particularly Leicester, who need to arrest their slide immediately in order to avoid a collapse for the ages. Wolves are some way off the pace, though could still have a big say in who qualifies when they play Chelsea on the final day.
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