The crazy thing about league tables is how quickly they can turn. No one is really safe, especially when it’s as close as this season’s Premier League fight for Champions League position. With the top two spots – Chelsea and Man City – effectively locked up, the third and fourth place slots are fully up in the air. Right now, between third and seventh, each team is separated by just a single point – like a step ladder. With 12 matches left, each one becomes increasingly more crucial. So, who has the best shot of those five clubs to position themselves on the all-important Champions League rungs? Who will slip down the ladder into Europa League obscurity? Let’s start with third place Arsenal.
Alexis Sanchez and his thighs have been powering Arsenal through this campaign (12 goals, 7 assists), but he has gotten more help as of late. Ozil, Cazorla, and Giroud have had their moments over the last few matches, and Walcott just came back from injury. Despite this week’s (understatement alert!) disappointing Champions League performance at home against Monaco, they’ve actually won their last six EPL matches at the Emirates. Although away from home, Arsenal has only been able to pull 21 points from 14 games.
What are their chances? Pretty good. This team underperformed in the first half and has been coming on strong in the second. Their unimpressive away form may not come into play, as they host almost all of their tough remaining fixtures. The only one on the road? Manchester United on the second-to-last matchday, which could be a massive tilt. Keep in mind Arsenal are still playing in two other leagues, although Monaco might be changing that.
Louis van Gaal’s men have actually been better at home and worse on the road than Arsenal, winning 10 of their 13 at Old Trafford and just three of their 13 away from home. United’s boring style of play (2nd in possession, but only 8th in shots per game) hasn’t led them to any big wins since mid-December when they beat Liverpool in possibly the least impressive 3-0 victory ever. Still, they remain in good shape due to van Gaal’s steady hand and De Gea’s brilliance.
What are their chances? Tough terrain approaching. Five of their last 12 fixtures feature a top seven squad, with Liverpool and Chelsea providing the challenging road tests. However, Man United doesn’t have any European distractions to worry about, which honestly could be the difference.
The Premier League’s most pleasant surprise, it’s amazing Southampton (just a year after Liverpool vulture-d their talent) has fought off bigger clubs to remain in the top five. This is a scrappy squad that is resilient on the road; they’ve let in just nine goals in 12 away matches. In fact, after their hot start defensively, Southampton hasn’t actually regressed all that much, only allowing a league-leading 9.2 shots per game and 19 goals in 26 matches. The question is: where does their offense come from? Those numbers have been midtable-esque, suggesting they may not be able to contend for a Champions League slot all the way to the finish line.
What are their chances? Despite their middling offensive numbers, I think they still have a decent shot – if they take care of business against the EPL minnows. Besides Chelsea and Man City on the road (which, okay, those are probably losses), the rest of the schedule is extremely mild. I’m actually rooting for these guys. Come on, Graziano!
Well, out of nowhere, look who it is. After an ugly three-game league skid in November, Liverpool has charged in from the middle of the pack. Since then, they have lost just one game (that 3-0 United loss) and Brendan Rogers is starting to look like a genius again. With ginormous recent victories over Tottenham and Southampton, their current form is as good as anyone. Balotelli drama aside, they have seen excellent play from their main guys (Sterling, Henderson, Coutinho).
What are their chances? Eh, not great. Even after all that praise I just heaped on them, I wouldn’t put money on them to finish top four. Their remaining games include City and United at home, plus Arsenal, Chelsea, and a tough Swansea crew on the road. That’s definitely not fun.
It’s hard to talk about Tottenham without mentioning their knight in shining armor, one Harry Kane. His recent performances have been a Jeremy Lin-level of unanticipated excellence. Currently, as Harry goes, the Spurs go also. Even last weekend, he just kept rolling with an injury-time tying goal vs West Ham. However, in a race this tight, you can’t afford to drop points in consecutive matches, as Tottenham just did.
What are their chances? While they’re three points out and have three teams to leapfrog, I’m not overly pessimistic on them. They do still have to travel to United and Southampton, but I think this young squad is starting to come on. Christian Eriksen, Danny Rose, and Nabil Bentaleb (all under age 25) have shown spurts of brilliance lately. I think it’s likely they come up short this season, but the rest of the EPL would do well to keep an eye on these guys.