With 12 games left until the end of the season, the race for the final European slots is really starting to heat up. Just four points separate 3rd placed Arsenal from 7th placed Tottenham Hotspur, whilst Chelsea and Manchester City look set to fight it out for the title between themselves.
Arsenal remained on track to clinch a top four spot by holding on for a 2-1 victory at Crystal Palace, despite Glenn Murray’s 90th minute goal and six minutes of injury time to contend with. The Gunners took the lead inside eight minutes with a Santi Cazorla penalty, after Papiss Souare tripped Danny Welbeck in the box. Olivier Giroud extended Arsenal’s lead just before half-time, tapping in the rebound after Welbeck’s shot was parried by Speroni.
Manchester United surrendered the lead to lose 2-1 at Swansea City, putting their Champions League aspirations in doubt – it is the first time the Swans have completed a league double over Manchester United in their history. Ander Herrera gave United the lead on the half hour mark with a fine low drive to cap a good team move. Garry Monk’s side responded immediately as Ki Seung Yeung ghosted through United’s defence to apply a cool finish to Jonjo Shelvey’s cross. The Swans sealed the victory after Shelvey’s 25-yard shot deflected off the head of Bafetimbi Gomis past David de Gea.
Last year’s runners-up Liverpool have been resurgent in recent weeks, and they continued their push for a top four finish with a 2-0 victory away to fellow challengers Southampton. The first-half was marred by poor refereeing decisions, as four penalties could have been awarded, but none were. Liverpool took the lead when Philippe Coutinho curled home off the underside of the bar from 25-yards out, with just three minutes on the clock – the Brazilian’s effort definitely was a contender for goal of the month. Liverpool sealed their victory through Raheem Sterling after 73 minutes, with only their second shot on target. The result means that Brendan Rodgers’ men have kept five successive away clean sheets in the league for the first time since 1985.
Spurs looked set to drop away from the pack at home to West Ham, but goals from Danny Rose and Harry Kane salvaged a point in the dying embers of the game. Allardyce’s side took a two goal lead through Kouyate and Sakho, but once again Mauricio Pochettino’s focus on fitness levels in training paid dividends. Kane’s equaliser came in the fifth minute of injury time. Kane’s penalty was kept out by Adrian, but the striker reacted quickest to tuck home the rebound. Tottenham have now rescued 13 points within the final five minutes of matches.
But who will go on to secure the final two places in next season’s Champions League? The best way to look at this is to examine the run-in that each team faces between now and the end of the season:
|Everton (H)||Man City (H)||Sunderland (H)||West Brom (A)|
|QPR (A)||Burnley (H)||Newcastle (A)||Crystal Palace (H)||Swansea (H)|
|West Ham (H)||Swansea (A)||Tottenham (H)||Chelsea (A)||Man Utd (A)|
|Newcastle (A)||Man Utd (H)||Liverpool (A)||Burnley (H)||Leicester (H)|
|Liverpool (H)||Arsenal (A)||Aston Villa (H)||Everton (A)||Burnley (A)|
|Burnley (A)||Newcastle (H)||Man City (H)||Hull (H)||Aston Villa (H)|
|Sunderland (H)||Hull (A)||Chelsea (A)||Stoke (A)||Newcaste (A)|
|Chelsea (H)||West Brom (A)||Everton (A)||Tottenham (H)||Southampton (A)|
|Hull (A)||QPR (H)||West Brom (H)||Sunderland (A)||Man City (H)|
|Swansea (H)||Chelsea (H)||Crystal Palace (A)||Leicester (A)||Stoke (A)|
|Man Utd (A)||Crystal Palace (H)||Arsenal (H)||Aston Villa (H)||Hull (H)|
|West Brom (H)||Stoke (A)||Hull (A)||Man City (A)||Everton (A)|
NB: matches against current top 7 in bold/italics
Arsenal, Southampton and Spurs have, on paper, the easiest run-in, with just three of the current top seven to play, then Liverpool have four and finally Manchester United have five to play. But let’s face it, it’s not that straightforward. Arsenal are still in the Champions League, while Liverpool and Spurs are still in the Europa League. Spurs also have a Capital One Cup final against league leaders Chelsea to contend.
For me, Arsene Wenger looks set to lead his Arsenal side into the Champions League for the 18th consecutive season. On paper, he has one of the easier run-ins, their Champions League exploits shouldn’t prove too strenuous and they are still in the FA cup. Wenger has been around long enough to know how to keep his squad firing both domestically and in Europe.
Prediction: 3rd place
Liverpool seem to be hitting form at the right time. They started the season very slowly and struggled to adapt to the departure of Luis Suarez, couple that with the injury to Daniel Sturridge and it’s clear to see why last year’s runners-up haven’t looked as threatening as last year. Liverpool have the Europa League to contend with, a competition that Rodgers will want to progress in as it may be their best chance to allow Steven Gerrard to finish with a trophy. They also still have the FA Cup to play for. Matches on Thursdays and Sundays have caused teams to fail in the past, but I think Liverpool have the squad to keep their momentum going.
Prediction: 4th place
At the start of the season, if you asked any United fan what would be considered a success, you would get the same response – a top four finish… Top four and the FA Cup? Even better… United are still in the hunt for the top four, and are still in the FA Cup, despite playing horribly all season. However, with five of the current top seven to play, as well as their recent record against teams in the top seven, I think that van Gaal’s men will just miss out on a Champions League spot and will have to settle for the Europa League next year – being a United fan, I hope I’m wrong.
Prediction: 5th place
Spurs have a relatively straightforward league run-in until the end of the season, but their commitments in Europe and the Capital One Cup will definitely be a hindrance. Spurs are currently two games into a run of six games in 17 days in all competitions. Mauricio Pochettino has been quite vocal in the media, complaining about the fixture congestion, but he is definitely a victim of Spurs’ success. You can’t expect to be in Europe and the Capital One cup at this stage and complain about the amount of games you have to play in quick succession. Unlike Southampton, Spurs have a decent amount of depth in the squad and they should be back in the Europa League next year.
Prediciton: 6th place
You cannot sing the praises of Ronald Koeman enough for the way that Southampton have performed this year. Despite having lost the likes of Lallana, Lovren, Shaw, and Rickie Lambert to the so called ‘Big Four’ and many in the media predicting danger this year, Southampton have improved massively on last year and are now in the mix for Europe. However, results have soured a bit recently and at the worst possible time. With the way that games come thick and fast towards the end of the season, the lack of depth in the Southampton squad may mean that they fall away from the rest of the pack right at the last.
Prediction: 7th place
This is the reason the Barclays Premier League has to be considered as one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Not just because of the traditional Big Four, but now more so than ever, because of the level of competition throughout the league.
These are merely my predictions for the top seven spots, but we all know that there are bound to be a few more twists and turns between now and the end of the season. Anything could happen, and I for one will enjoy watching it play out.