Premier League title race may be over but battle for the Champions League spots is alive

Matt Jones 6/02/2018
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Alexis Sanchez has made an instant impact at United.

Manchester City are sauntering to the Premier League title, playing a thrilling brand of football. But while the question of who will be champions seems obsolete, the race for the top four is anything but boring.

Just 11 points separates the five teams behind City fighting to get into next season’s Champions League. But which of the three will it be, and which two will miss out?

Here, Matt Jones asks the question; which teams are at most risk of not finishing inside the top four?

MANCHESTER UNITED

From one week to the next, fans appear torn on Jose Mourinho’s tactics and suitability for the job, which is ludicrous when taking into consideration he’s won two trophies in his short tenure – one of which, last season’s Europa League, was the only major accolade the club had never previously won.

United supporters have short memories, was the football under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal really any better? Most United fans’ ire seems to be thrown Mourinho’s way when the fact is Manchester neighbours and rivals City are playing superb football, and are significantly better than any other club.

The fact is United are enjoying a more than decent season. Their football has been more free-flowing than in any of the past five campaigns since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down. United have already scored more goals in 2017/18 (51) than they did in Van Gaal’s entire final season (49), while they’re also closing in on Mourinho’s first season total (54) and will likely top the tally scored in Moyes’ ill-fated campaign (64) and Van Gaal’s debut term (62).

They’re the favourites to claim second place and their January acquisition of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal will only boost that likelihood.

Top 4 chances – 9/10

People forget the success Mourinho enjoyed last year.


LIVERPOOL

Jurgen Klopp’s biggest worry is his creaking defence, something that appears to look no stronger despite the £75m arrival of Virgil van Dijk, the world’s most expensive defender. But while the same issue is apparent at Arsenal and to a lesser extent, Chelsea and Tottenham too, the Reds’ attack is utterly devastating. Klopp is able to call upon the talents of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Emre Can also know where the net is.

After City, Liverpool are still owners of clearly the second best forward unit in the league – which is extremely impressive when you factor in they’ve lost Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona.

Of course, their defence is a major concern. Van Dijk was brought in to shore up a backline in which a calamity never appears far away with Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan in the ranks, while Joel Matip hasn’t looked anywhere near the rock he was in his debut campaign a year ago.

It speaks volumes that youngsters Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson have been their most consistent performers.

There is also a worry between the sticks where the unconvincing Lloris Karius has come in for the bungling Simon Mignolet in recent games. Still, their potent attack should see them outscore most opponents.

Top 4 chances – 8/10

Star of the season: Mohamed Salah.


CHELSEA

Right now, there appears no team more at risk of dropping out of the top four race than the Blues. One glance at the table might bring this into question as they occupy fourth spot, with Spurs a point behind and Arsenal five points adrift.

But they’re in woeful form while discord apparently divides the dressing room, with manager Antonio Conte fighting to stay in his job. The reigning champions have won just three of their last 10 games in all competitions – one of which included them needing penalties to beat Championship Norwich in the FA Cup.

They’ve been humbled at home by Bournemouth 3-0 and were ruthlessly torn apart 4-1 by Watford on Monday in their last two league games, while Alvaro Morata is out injured and Eden Hazard appears as if he’s carrying the team on his shoulders of late.

Talk before the season even began that Conte wasn’t happy in his role was never going to help, and that hasn’t gone away, while there appeared an almost waving of the white flag at Vicarage Road as players showed a worrying lack of fight.

If Conte doesn’t turn things around quickly, he’ll be gone. But even if that happens, who does Roman Abramovich turn to in order to turn the ship around?

Top 4 chances – 6/10

Antonio Conte's future at Chelsea is uncertain

Antonio Conte’s future at Chelsea is uncertain.


TOTTENHAM

After a slow start, the north London side have found their form in recent months. Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten in 2018 and haven’t lost in 10 games in all competitions. They have the league’s leading scorer in Harry Kane (22 goals in 25 games) who is back to his best after going a month in August with just one goal, while he was also misfiring for another four weeks during October and November, when he recorded two goals.

It’s now 18 goals in the last 17 games for the young Englishman, while Spurs are also purring elsewhere in attack, with Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen appearing to be at their best. The one worry for Pochettino will be Dele Alli’s lack of form in front of goal, as well as his recent issues off the field.

Defensively, they’re also much more imposing than the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, with a rock-solid back four that boasts Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at its core. Danny Rose and Ben Davies are two brilliant options at left-back while the form of Kieran Trippier has meant Kyle Walker has hardly been missed.

Top 4 chances – 7/10

Tottenham have plenty of firepower.


ARSENAL

The Gunners might be the team currently at the biggest risk of missing the Champions League boat down in sixth place, but a successful January transfer window could soon see the mere five-point gap separating them from the top four evaporate.

There’s been plenty for Arsenal’s fans to moan about this season – spineless performances, a lack of leadership and the sense Arsene Wenger’s legacy is rapidly eroding after years of underperforming. And while they have zero chance of winning the title – yet again – the attitude shown in the January market at least shows the Gunners are still a major player.

Although they lost another big name player as Alexis Sanchez joined rivals Manchester United, swapping an unhappy player for Henrikh Mkhitaryan – admittedly another unhappy and underperforming player – was shrewd business. There’s a fine player inside the Armenian somewhere, and away from the glare of the Old Trafford spotlight, perhaps he can be found.

Unlike other failed pursuits, Arsenal also splashed the cash on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Whatever you think of his tactics in engineering a move away from Borussia Dortmund, he is a truly world-class finisher who instantly upgrades Arsenal’s frontline. Expect him to fire the goals that get the Gunners back into the Champions League.

Top 4 chances – 8/10

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored on his Arsenal debut.

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Alexis Sanchez the 'perfect player' for Manchester United, says Wayne Rooney

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Wayne Rooney has backed Sanchez to inspire the rest of United's attackers.

Record Manchester United goalscorer Wayne Rooney has described Alexis Sanchez as the “perfect” signing for his former club, comparing the Chilean to former strike partner Carlos Tevez.

Sanchez, who seemed set to join Manchester City before United gazumped their neighbours to sign the player from Arsenal, recorded an assist in a man-of-the-match display on his United debut against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup, and although he had a quiet outing in his next match as United lost to Tottenham, he opened his account for his new club in a 2-0 win over Huddersfield on Saturday.

Rooney, who left United to return to Everton last summer after winning every trophy on offer at the Manchester club, was part of a thrilling three-pronged strike force alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez which did the Premier League and Champions League double in 2007-08, and says Sanchez’s arrival could have the same effect as Tevez’s signing in 2007 did.

“For me he’s the perfect player for Manchester United, he’s got aggression, passion, desire and you can see he’s a winner,” he told Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show.

“That’s sort of what Manchester United have lacked – players around (Romelu) Lukaku who are going to push him on and help him score more goals.

“They are the players you want, almost like (Carlos) Tevez when he joined United.

“Those players lift the others.”

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Who could replace Antonio Conte? Four potential candidates to become the Chelsea manager

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Antonio Conte is on the cusp of being dismissed by Chelsea following his side’s 4-1 thrashing to Watford on Monday.

The Italian’s future had been under the microscope following a period of lacklustre form – which includes three wins, four draws and three losses since the turn of the year.

Here, we take a look at four replacements should Conte leave Stamford Bridge with the Blues way off the pace in 4th spot.

LUIS ENRIQUE
AGE:
 47

NATIONALITY: Spanish

The front-runner for the Chelsea job.

The former Barcelona boss has been out of work since taking a sabbatical from the game after leaving the Camp Nou last May.

The Spaniard departed the club after three years, which included one Champions League title as well as two La Liga and Copa del Rey doubles.

If a new manager was required before the season’s end it is doubtful that Enrique would take the job, however, a summer approach could be possible.

Luis Enrique: Out of work and looking for a new challenge.

GUUS HIDDINK
AGE:
 71
NATIONALITY: Dutch

The Dutchman has enjoyed two interim spells in charge at the club and would be the ideal option if Conte is sacked mid-season.

Hiddink first stepped in during the 2008/2009 season after Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked – winning the FA Cup, before returning to the club in 2015 following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho.

At 71, Hiddink has buckets of experience in management and is clearly a trusted figure for club owner Roman Abramovich.

A return to Stamford Bridge is surely the perfect short-term fix, before hierarchy at the west London club bid for a marquee boss during the summer.

Guus Hiddink has twice been in the Chelsea hotseat previously.

MASSIMILIANO ALLEGRI
AGE:
 50
NATIONALITY: Italian

One of the favourites to become the next Chelsea manager on the back of a recent report in Corriere dello Sport which suggested the club have already agreed a deal in principle for his services.

The 50-year-old did well to sustain Conte’s success at Juventus – securing three Serie A titles and reaching two Champions League finals.

A new challenge surely awaits Allegri after a trophy-laden stint in Torino, but could it be as Italy’s national manager rather than in the Premier League.

Allegri is being linked with the job.

EDDIE HOWE
AGE:
 40
NATIONALITY: English

Football has been waiting for the Cherries boss to rise up the managerial ladder, and perhaps this could be his chance to showcase his talents if an approach came from the Blues.

Bournemouth’s playing style and incredible journey has earned him plenty of plaudits, but the only negative is he is yet to gain experience at a club who are challenging for trophies.

And with Abramovich showing a lack of patience with his managers for over a decade, the 40-year-old would be more suitable to a mid-table outfit where he may be afforded time to put structures in place.

Ready for a new challenge? Eddie Howe.

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