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Chelsea chasers seeking Champions League consolation

The only two teams that can realistically overtake Chelsea, assuming a momentous slipup from the league leaders, are Spurs and City

Chelsea chasers seeking Champions League consolation

Going into this weekend Chelsea (69) sit 10 points clear at the top of the English Premier League standings, ahead of second placed Tottenham Hotspurs (59) with 10 games to go. Manchester City are one point behind Spurs with 58.

Between the second and sixth, there’s a nine point gap, with 5th and 6th placed Manchester United (52) and Arsenal (50) each having a game in hand on Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea. Fourth placed Liverpool (59) have played 29 games, one more than Chelsea, Spurs and City, and two more than United and Arsenal.

10 points, of course, is a massive gap going into the final quarter of the season. No Premier League side has ever chased down a gap of more than five points going into the final nine games of the season, since Manchester United did it in 2002/03. United themselves saw an 11-point lead over Arsenal erased in 1997/1998 with nine games to go, but the North Londoners had three games in hand back then. Similarly Chelsea had a nine point lead cut down by City after 29 games in 2014, with Manuel Pellegrini’s side having three games in hand as well back then.

Therefore, it is safe to say that Chelsea are threatening to run away with the league title. But ever since Leicester City’s 5000/1 win in 2016, nothing in English football — if not all of sport — is a foregone conclusion.

The only two teams that can realistically overtake Chelsea, assuming a momentous slipup from the league leaders, are Spurs and City.

Spurs on paper have winnable fixtures this month [Burnley (A), Swansea (A), Watford (H), Bournemouth (H), Crystal Palace (A)], with an FA Cup clash with Chelsea in the mix as well. Two of Spurs’ final four fixtures are Arsenal (H) and Man United (H). By that time it would be clearer whether Spurs are taking on their rivals for a top 4 finish, or if there still is a title race.

City play Arsenal (A), Chelsea (A), Hull (H), Southampton (A) and Man Utd (H) as their next five fixtures, in what clearly would be the defining run of games for them. Their only hope of fabricating a title race is through a win at Stamford Bridge. Barring that, the games against United and Arsenal should be for Champions League slots.

Chelsea themselves play City (H), Man Utd (A) and Everton (A) in three of their six games this month. Spurs and City absolutely need Antonia Conte’s team to drop points in all of these games for there to be any inkling of hope of them bridging the gap to the top.

Liverpool quite possibly have the easiest run-in to the end of the season. They do not play any of the other six sides and have both Everton and Southampton at home. Liverpool can create daylight between themselves and United and Arsenal if they could go on a strong run in April. They also have the advantage of being the only side in the top six that isn’t in a cup competition, ensuring that they can allocate all their resources to the league.

Manchester United, on the contrary, play all of their top 6 rivals — barring Liverpool — in their final 11 games of the season. They also have Everton and Southampton. They are also the only remaining English side in Europe, with another potential five games in the Europa League for them. This is why United might be eying Europa League glory as their route to Champions League next season, should they fail to make the top 4 in the league.

Arsenal too play City (at home tonight), Spurs (A) and United (H) — in addition to Everton and Southampton — before the end of the season.

Arsenal’s customary collapse this time of the year has left them short on confidence, with Arsenal Wenger’s side having it all to do to avoid finishing outside the top 4 for the first time since 1995.

Spurs and City might be eying an improbable Chelsea collapse, but both sides do look good to finish in the top 3 regardless. This might leave Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal — the traditional heavyweights of English football — to battle it out for fourth. And for each of the sides failing to finish in the top four, would be regression of varying proportions.

Neither United, nor Liverpool, were in the top 4 last season. But with Jurgen Klopp’s first full season in charge of Liverpool, and United hiring Mourinho, Champions League qualification would’ve been the bare minimum for both sides.

As mentioned above Liverpool have the easiest run in and no cup distractions, while United have the Europa League route as well. It might become a Liverpool-United tussle for Champions League qualification, and the traditional rivalry between the two might spice up the race for fourth.

Even so, for that to happen, the unthinkable needs to materialise:

Arsenal would have to drop out of the top 4. Many have argued that this might actually be the best thing that could happen to Arsenal, after a decade of consistent underachievement for a club of their stature. They might have the opportunity to add another FA Cup to their recent wins in the tournament, if they can overcome City in the semifinal. But maybe the biggest loser of Arsenal finishing in a Champions League slot would be Arsenal Football Club itself.

K Shahid

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