It has generally been accepted for a good few weeks / months that the title race is a two horse race, which will be determined by whoever blinks first between Liverpool and Manchester City. However below those two standout teams of the season, another exciting race is starting to bubble away.
A mere matter of six weeks, or five matches ago if like all football obsessives you live your life in seasons rather than weeks, months and years; Tottenham, in third place, were nine points clear of Manchester United and a further point ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea, albeit having played a game more than their three pursuers. Defeats to Burnley, Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool as well as a draw in the ‘home’ North London derby saw Mauricio Pochettino’s side pick up just one point out of a possible fifteen in that run, and their lead slashed to just a solitary point over Arsenal and Chelsea and three over United.
Arsène Wenger was roundly derided for his claims a few years back that a top four finish in the Premier League was akin, if not superior to, winning one of the cup competitions, yet as is so often the way with the cerebral Frenchman’s affirmations when viewed with hindsight, we realise he may well have had it right all along.
It is pretty much inarguable that qualification for the Champions League gravy train and the associated lustre in terms of attracting players, sponsors and other commercial opportunities carries far more weight than winning one of the domestic cups. Almost worse is the negative impact on the perception and status of a club that fails to be involved for more than a season.
The Premier League is the only competition across the continent where there are more genuine contenders than Champions League places. We only need to look at Chelsea’s and Arsenal’s progress in the Europa League, to realise the strength of our league. The only teams even likely to be able to stand in the way of an all-English final in that competition are teams that were eliminated from the superior Champions League in the form of: Napoli, Valencia or Benfica.
The ‘Big Six’ cartel effect in the Premier League is to make the battle for a top four finish genuine, with two of the elite teams missing out each season, unless of course the two clubs finishing fifth and sixth win both of the European tournaments.
As Tottenham stumbled, the others girded their proverbial loins and stepped up the pressure. Still bubbling from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not being José Mourinho, Manchester United successfully frustrated Liverpool at Old Trafford, beat both Crystal Palace and Southampton before coming a cropper to Unai Emery’s Arsenal at the Emirates and then losing at Wolves on Tuesday night.
Arsenal have operated somewhat under the radar but have accumulated points at quite a pace since they were humbled at the Etihad at the beginning of February. As the season progresses us Gooners are being given grounds for hope and optimism as Emery’s famed “methods” and “way” are becoming more and more evident in the performances of the team and the squad as a whole. Arsenal now boast the same number of points at this stage of the season as they had in the entirety of the last campaign, with seven matches yet to play.
Chelsea, despite their fans being clearly less and less enamoured with their current coach’s ‘Sarri-Ball’ style of football, have nonetheless kept themselves very much in the hunt for a return to European football’s elite competition, albeit was a rather large slice of good fortune thanks to some generous / inept (delete as appropriate!) officiating at the Cardiff City Stadium last Sunday.
With the games coming thick and fast from here on in there are likely to be twists, turns and changes of position and momentum aplenty. Tottenham, finally installed in their new stadium, face a potentially daunting trip to face Manchester City immediately after they have completed the second leg of the Champions League Quarter Final against the same opponents in a run of games in the next fortnight that may well determine their season. Their remaining league fixtures after that seem a lot more straightforward however, with three of their last four being at their newly christened ground.
In contrast Arsenal have five of their last seven games away from the, if not quite fortress-like then certainly more secure than it has been in the past, Emirates Stadium. The contrast between Arsenal’s fortunes at home compared to those on their travels is stark: their 44 points gained at home being more than double the 19 gathered on the road. The Gunners are also yet to record a clean sheet away from home and concede on average almost two goals per away game. Facing tricky trips to: Everton, Wolves and Leicester this month, a significant improvement in their away form is needed from Unai Emery’s charges if they are to help the new man at the helm exceed expectations in his maiden season.
Chelsea face trips to both Anfield and Old Trafford before April is out in two matches that could prove pivotal in both the title race and the race for the top four, if the Blues can emerge from those games largely unscathed and with a relatively less taxing European schedule than the rest, they will fancy their chances of a return to the Champions League either through the league or by winning the Europa League.
The honeymoon period of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s official appointment as the next permanent Manchester United manager took a bit of a knock this week when they were beaten at Molineux, a result that in effect dropped them to sixth in the table. With tough games to come against cross-city rivals, Manchester City, as well as the visit of Chelsea, things may be set to become truly testing for the self-assured Solskjaer.
It is impossible to pick with any certainty who will seize the final two places in the top four, but if I had to guess I would suggest that the two North London clubs look to be in the strongest position, however I certainly wouldn’t rule out Chelsea securing their place in the promised land by the backdoor of Europa League glory.