Liverpool’s 3-2 victory over Tottenham on Tuesday evening was one of the games of the season in the Premier League so far, with two young, high-tempo sides attacking with freedom and pressing intensely when they lost possession. Ultimately, however, the lack of control on display illustrated why they remain outsiders for the Champions League places.
Liverpool’s victory was great for the race for the final two Champions League spots, which, assuming Chelsea and Manchester City don’t dramatically collapse, is unquestionably a five-horse race that also includes Manchester United, Arsenal and Southampton. The battle for those places is often much tighter than the race for the championship itself, and this season is no exception.
The favourites for a Champions League spot must be Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s side wobbled badly earlier in the campaign, but despite last weekend’s setback against Tottenham, they’re in good form, are clearly improving as the season continues and have the easiest remaining fixtures of these five sides.
Arsenal are accustomed to a late burst to claim a Champions League spot, and there’s no reason they won’t repeat the trick this season. There are still worries with Arsene Wenger’s side, and consistency is never guaranteed; a nervous David Ospina performance at White Hart Lane raised fresh doubts about the goalkeeper position, and though Francis Coquelin has performed well in the holding midfield role, who knows how long his run of form will last?
Nevertheless, Wenger has his forwards firing, and Arsenal should be able to simply outscore opponents. They are the English only side still competing in the Champions League and FA Cup, though Liverpool are in the Europa League and FA Cup, while Tottenham have Europa commitments too and are in the Capital One Cup final.
Wenger has a deep enough squad to cope with this, however, and Arsenal don’t have many testing away trips, with a May journey to Old Trafford the only truly daunting game. They remain consistent at the Emirates, where they’ve only lost once in the league this season.
Arsenal should end up on around 76 points, which would probably see them into third position.
Manchester United are currently in pole position to join Arsenal in the Champions League but have two problems: First, they have a difficult run of fixtures remaining and, second, they’re simply not playing very well.
It remains extremely tricky to understand why Louis van Gaal’s side continue to collect results. Long ball or no long balls, they’re struggling to create clear-cut chances, and their obvious nervousness at the back is flattered by their actual defensive record, which is surprisingly very good.
It feels like their luck will end at some point, but they’re in the unusual position of having a deep squad, while not having any European commitments; the FA Cup interferes less with the natural rhythm of preparing for weekend games.
Van Gaal will have more scope to prepare tactically for upcoming opponents, and though United’s attacking play has been poor, perhaps the coach deserves more credit for nullifying opponents effectively.
Around 73 points looks likely for Manchester United, a figure which should result in fourth place.
Southampton shouldn’t be written off. In December, it felt like they’d collapsed, and injuries hit them more harshly than any other side; Ronald Koeman has only named six substitutes on a couple occasions.
But their superb backline means they collect points even when the attack isn’t firing, as in the midweek goalless draw against 10-man West Ham. This is vital, considering the Saints have only scored one goal in their past three games, a 90th-minute Sadio Mane winner at QPR.
Yet it’s still somehow difficult to believe Southampton will sneak into the Champions League places: Graziano Pelle has not scored in the league since September, while Dusan Tadic might suffer in the second half of the season, being accustomed to a winter break. If a key man such as Morgan Schneiderlin is out longer than expected, Southampton’s midfield will suffer.
Seventy points seems a good target, which represents an astonishing campaign, given preseason expectations, but is likely to see Saints qualify for the Europa League rather than the Champions League.
Then come Liverpool and Tottenham, and it still feels like they’re building for next season. For Liverpool, a raft of players signed since Luis Suarez left are only just finding their feet and should be in top gear for next season.
As for Spurs, new manager Mauricio Pochettino’s methods took a while to implement, and only in the second half of the season has it become obvious he’s found something close to a winning formula.
As was obvious Tuesday, however, neither side can truly control games. Liverpool are more reliable with a three-man defence but make far too many individual mistakes at the back, with Mamadou Sakho’s inexplicable slip for Harry Kane’s goal the latest entry in that category. Good sides expose their backline relatively easily.
Pochettino has the squad to cope with competing on three fronts, yet there’s still a dependence upon certain individuals for Tottenham to play at their best, evidenced by the fact their manager named the same starting XI for the 2-1 win at Arsenal and the 3-2 defeat at Liverpool.
Sixty-eight points seems about right for both Liverpool and Spurs, and in this sense, the status quo is maintained: over the past half-decade, they’ve generally been on the outside of the Champions League places looking in.
Should these predictions come true — and in all probability, they won’t — it will be a somewhat boring outcome, with two regular Champions League qualifiers cementing their place in the competition again.
Yet with around eight points likely to cover third-seventh, it’s sure to be a close race. With six fixtures remaining between these sides — Liverpool compete in three — head-to-head matches will essentially decide England’s third and fourth Champions League contenders for 2015-16.
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