Forget the Premier League title, the race for the top four is where it’s really at this season in England.
Written only slightly tongue in cheek, the pursuit of Champions League football next term is being fought among a collection of the usual subjects, but the very unusual nature of the 2018/19 campaign means the identity of the teams who will get the last two spots behind title-chasing duo Manchester City and Liverpool is genuinely anyone’s guess.
A few weeks ago, Tottenham were in a three-horse race for the title. Now, Saturday’s defeat at Southampton has seen them sink into the mire of the top four scrap with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
The two other London clubs started the season so well – embarking on impressive unbeaten runs before the honeymoon period for Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri was well and truly torpedoed.
Bookending it all is United’s total transformation from Jose Mourinho to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, which means the chase for those final two coveted elite European spots should go down to the wire.
Here, we assess each of the foursome’s remaining league games and predict where they will finish in the table and why they will or won’t claim a top four place:
Run-in: Crystal Palace H (date TBC), Liverpool A (31/3), Brighton H (7/4), Huddersfield H (13/4), Man City A (20/4), West Ham H (27/4), Bournemouth A (4/5), Everton H (12/5)
Why they will: They’ve been in the driving seat for a top four finish throughout the season – despite persistent predictions of inevitable failure, having not made any significant investment in the squad in the last two seasons.
They have arguably the league’s finest marksman – Harry Kane – back after serious injury, and the Englishman has scored in each of his three games since returning. Compatriot Dele Alli is also back in the fold and the duo form part of a fearsome front line – including Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen – that is the most potent among this quartet of challengers. They also possess in Mauricio Pochettino one of the finest young managers in the game – equally adept in terms of tactical and man-management skills.
Why they won’t: As good as they’ve been all season, they are on the slide. The chase for the Premier League title was a three-horse race six weeks ago – yet three defeats and a draw in their last four have seen Spurs stutter.
Not only have they fallen out of title contention, they have been reeled in by the chasing pack – a win at rivals Arsenal on Sunday would have seen United go level with them in third.
There have been signs of the unflappable Pochettino imploding in recent weeks – evidenced by his referee rant after the final whistle following their 2-1 defeat at relegation-threatened Burnley – while they also have daunting trips down the stretch to Liverpool and City.
On top of this, a threadbare squad must juggle the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Predicted points: WLDWLWWW (16) = 77
Predicted finish: 4th
Run-in: Wolves A (date TBC), Newcastle H (1/4), Everton A (7/4), Watford A (15/4), Crystal Palace H (20/4), Leicester A (29/4), Brighton H (4/5), Burnley A (12/5)
Why they will: Out of their opponents they surely have the easier run-in, which is devoid of any meetings against the other sides in the top six. Their confidence will also be sky-high after Sunday’s result against United at home, with the Emirates also something of a secret fortress, having not tasted defeat there in the league in their last 15 games, since a 2-0 defeat on opening day to Manchester City. All of which will stand them in good test heading down the home straight.
Why they won’t: Bad news for the Gunners is five of their remaining eight games are away from the Emirates and, of the top six sides in the league, Arsenal’s mental fortitude can be questioned more than any other – having dealt mostly in repeated failure for the best part of the last decade.
Arsene Wenger’s empire crumbled around him in his latter years and Unai Emery has quite the rebuilding job ahead of him in his formative years – early optimism forged via a 22-game unbeaten run has given way to familiar fears during recent, troubling times.
After 19 straight years of qualifying for the Champions League under Wenger, meanwhile, they also have failed to finish in the top four the last two seasons.
Predicted points: LWWDWLWW (16) = 76
Predicted finish: 5th
Run-in: Watford H (30/3), Wolves A (2/4), West Ham H (13/4), Everton A (21/4), Man City H (24/4), Chelsea H (28/4), Huddersfield A (4/5), Cardiff H (12/5)
Why they will: Having been a car crash under Mourinho, United have steered themselves into top four contention with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the wheel.
The Norwegian has not only lifted the players’ spirits and restored confidence, he has proved himself tactically adept and, in doing so, disproved the theory that United’s squad was a shambles under the Portuguese.
Pound for pound it is the best of the four teams gunning for the remaining two Champions League spots, and they’re in fine form.
Forget the Arsenal result – a first domestic defeat under Solskjaer – United dominated at the Emirates and, had one of a plethora of chances been taken, it could have been a very different story.
Why they won’t: Defeat was tasted at home to Paris Saint-Germain but having rectified that with a logic-defying second-leg win in France, how will a maiden loss on the home front affect momentum?
United are once again entertaining their supporters under Solskjaer, but they’re also far from watertight in defence – where makeshift right-back Ashley Young and a lack of elite stars remain a crutch.
They welcome Manchester rivals City and Chelsea to Old Trafford in the space of five days at the end of April. Add in the two-legged Champions League quarter-final in the same month as well as managing a squad ravaged with injuries of late, Solskjaer’s most stressful time could lie ahead.
Predicted points: WDWWDWWW (20) = 78
Predicted finish: 3rd
Run-in: Brighton H (date TBC), Everton A (17/3), Cardiff A (31/3), West Ham H (8/4), Liverpool A (14/4), Burnley H (22/4), Man Utd A (28/4), Watford H (4/5), Leicester A (12/5)
Why they will: They have failed to qualify for the Champions League in two of the previous three years following periods of unrest at the end of Mourinho’s second spell and Antonio Conte’s reign.
But in terms of business end of the season pedigree there have been few better in recent campaigns – having graced Europe’s elite stage in 14 of the last 16 seasons. Chelsea were also champions of England in two of the last four campaigns.
They also have the meanest defence in England after City and Liverpool and while Arsenal and United, in-particular, have several question marks at the back, the Blues are pretty solid.
Why they won’t: Maurizio Sarri has turned a sinking, mutinous ship around in recent weeks, with the Blues unbeaten in three league games. But the supporters are certainly no fans of ‘Sarriball’ and you feel disaster or embarrassment could rear its head at the next sign of strife.
Chelsea are also a team whose form is so intrinsically linked to that of their talisman Eden Hazard and, even though he is one of the league’s finest talents, if he has an off-day, Chelsea lack inspiration.
Alvaro Morata failed alarmingly, Olivier Giroud is struggling more for minutes at Stamford Bridge than he ever did at Arsenal, and Gonzalo Higuain’s three goals in 12 games since arriving on loan from AC Milan have come in the form of a brace and a solitary strike against doomed Huddersfield and Fulham respectively. They must also travel to Liverpool and United.
Predicted points: WWWWLWLWD (19) = 76
Predicted finish: 6th
Eden Hazard anticipates the four-way fight for two Champions League qualifying places to continue until the final day of the Premier League season.
Hazard rescued a point for Chelsea in a 1-1 draw with Wolves on Sunday, when Arsenal beat fellow top-four hopefuls Manchester United 2-0.
With Manchester City and Liverpool in a two-way title duel, there are four teams battling for the two remaining top-four spots.
Tottenham, who lost at Southampton on Saturday, have 61 points and Arsenal 60. United are on 58 and Chelsea 57, but with a game in hand.
Hazard told Chelsea TV: “It’s a good battle. Man City and Liverpool are far away, then there are four teams who want to be in the top four.
“It’s going to be a good race to the end. We have nine games to play now. We have to give everything.”
Chelsea next play Everton on Sunday, after Thursday’s Europa League last-16 second leg at Dynamo Kiev. They hold a 3-0 first-leg advantage.
The Blues lost at Wolves in December and Hazard had mixed feelings following his late intervention which salvaged a draw.
He added: “We lost away three months ago. The game was exactly the same. We created a couple of chances, but not enough.
“The good point is we gave everything until the end and we scored a goal. A bit of happiness, even if we are a bit sad.
“I like to score and then we win the game. I scored, we drew. It’s a bit disappointing.
“We need to keep going. We have a tough game on Thursday and then on Sunday. Let’s move forward, back in training, work together and try to win games.”
Wolves remained seventh and defender Romain Saiss rued the dropped points.
“It was very, very hard to concede this goal at the end,” Saiss told Wolves TV.
“Our plan was good. We tried to frustrate them and tried to do something when they made a mistake.
“We did it well, but unfortunately we didn’t keep the result till the end. We deserved more. We gave everything on the pitch.”
Wolves next face United – conquerors of Chelsea, last season’s winners – in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Saiss added: “We have to switch on for this game now. It’s an important game for us to get to the semi-final at Wembley.
“We play at home. We have to be ready for this game. We’ll try to do something great next Saturday.”
Bernd Leno revealed Jesse Lingard’s goal celebration in Arsenal‘s recent FA Cup defeat to Manchester United acted as motivation as the Gunners secured victory in Sunday’s Premier League clash between the top-four rivals.
A Granit Xhaka strike and a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty saw Arsenal win 2-0 and end Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unbeaten domestic streak since taking caretaker charge at Old Trafford in December.
Arsenal leapfrog United into fourth place as a result as the chase for Champions League qualification took more twists with both Tottenham and Chelsea dropping points over the course of the weekend.
Lingard celebrated a goal in United’s 3-1 FA Cup fourth round win at the Emirates Stadium back in January by moonwalking in front of the Arsenal supporters.
The England international had previously scored twice in the league clash in north London last season and irked Arsenal fans by posting his recent celebration on Instagram with the location set as “dancefloor”.
Mesut Ozil appeared to reference Lingard in a post-match tweet on Sunday evening which read: “Dancefloor huh?! Superb performance! Brilliant result! Thank you Emirates Stadium! Proud to be a Gunner!”
Lingard missed the game as he nurses a hamstring injury but Leno, who enjoyed another fine afternoon in goal for Arsenal, admitted the forward’s previous antics had spurred on the hosts.
“I don’t know but in your mind you will never forget something like that, when somebody is celebrating,” he said when asked if the win was revenge for the FA Cup loss and Lingard’s dance.
“You don’t want to see it again so we were motivated and we knew before the game about our chance because Man United had one point than us.
“Now we have two points and that was enough motivation for us. We are in the top four and the other teams now wait for our mistakes.
“There are still eight games and we want to win every game but we have to focus on each one because the other teams will wait for small mistakes.
“We don’t play against the other top six teams so I think we can beat the others. The next game is against Newcastle at home and it is an opportunity to win and stay in the top four.”
The defeat leaves United outside the top four with eight games remaining, although captain Ashley Young admits the club would have taken that position earlier in the season when they were well off the pace under former boss Jose Mourinho.
“Yes, of course,” he told manutd.com when asked if the race for a top-four finish could go down to the last day of the campaign.
“But I think there are so many points to pick up, so many games left. For me, if we were talking back in October, saying that we were going to be fighting for fourth place, we would have taken that with where we were.
“But, on a personal level, and everyone in the dressing room, I think the club a size of United should be higher up the league and that’s where I see it, but right now, obviously, we’re talking about finishing in the top four and we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”