Premier League top four race Expect Liverpool, Man City, Leicester and Chelsea to hold on maybe
While a currently invincible Liverpool await what seems a certain Premier League coronation, the “who makes the Top 4?” plot thickens by the week. Only a fool would dare make a prediction about how this everyday story of flawed football teams might unfold between now and May.
At times it has resembled a race to actually avoid those lucrative Champions League places, as most of the contenders have been that erratic.
Here is how things stand:
1. Liverpool: 67 points
2. Man City: 51
3. Leicester: 48
4. Chelsea: 40
5. Man United: 34
6. Spurs: 34
7. Wolves: 34
8. Sheffield United: 33
Manchester City, who amassed 198 points over the previous two seasons, no longer carry that same aura. They can still play wonderful football, but at times resemble a brilliantly fast horse that inexplicably runs the a bad race. Witness the losses to Norwich, Wolves (twice), at home to Manchester United and away at Anfield.
Pep Guardiola has given up on a third consecutive title, but at least City are looking good for the runners-up slot after six wins in their last eight games. After that, however, the picture looks distinctly unclear.
Leicester City, easy on the eye, are currently third and have a huge 14-point cushion between themselves and fifth place. That should be an easy enough lead to protect, but they have lost four of their past eight league games and Jamie Vardy (apart from picking up a knock) hasn’t scored in his last five games. After a fabulous autumn, it’s fair to say the Foxes have just lost the scent a little. Their home match against fourth-placed Chelsea on Saturday is an intriguing one.
Speaking of Chelsea, the form of Frank Lampard’s young team veers between volatile and explosive. They create plenty of chances but always look likely to concede. The recent 2-2 home draw against Arsenal was typical, twice squandering the lead and dropping points to the 10-man Gunners. Worryingly, Chelsea have lost six of their last 11 league games, but in that run produced one of the performances of the season in a 2-0 win at Tottenham. It’s genuinely anyone’s guess as to what might happen next to them.
Likewise, Manchester United are about as reliable as a box of snakes. A 2-1 win at City in the Manchester derby seemed to signal a breakthrough in November. Since then, United’s League form reads DLWWLWLL: that’s 10 points out of a possible 24. Not good enough. Without some big signings this week and also burdened by the injury to Marcus Rashford, it’s hard to see United bridging the six-point gap between themselves and fourth-place Chelsea. A home game against Wolves provides a difficult next obstacle.
Nuno Espírito Santo’s gifted team are level on points with Manchester United in seventh place, but they’ve been on the go since July — thanks to the early rounds of Europa League qualifying — and have played 40 games already. Late-season fatigue could be a factor, but Wolves can’t be written off with a striker as prolific as Raul Jimenez, who has 11 league goals already this season.
You could say the same about Chris Wilder’s remarkable Sheffield United side because, on 33 points, they are still in the top four argument, albeit as rank outsiders. Wilder deserves every accolade coming his way in his Premier League debut season.
On 34 points and sandwiched between United and Wolves come Spurs, for whom most games just lately look like hard labour in a season that’s never really had that lift-off moment. Jose Mourinho’s past six league games read WDLLDW and the hamstring injury that will keep top scorer Harry Kane out until at least April is threatening to kill off Tottenham’s chance of a fifth consecutive top-four finish. This weekend’s home game against Manchester City should offer clues about whether Mourinho has any magic potion to apply.
The smart money says the current top four of Liverpool, Man City, Leicester and Chelsea will hold on to earn Champions League action next season but given the wildly unpredictable form of the clubs involved, prepare to be surprised.