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A five-horse race for top four in England

After Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with West Ham in midweek, eight points separate second placed Manchester ...

A five-horse race for top four in England

After Tottenham’s 1-1 draw with West Ham in midweek, eight points separate second placed Manchester United (47) and sixth placed Arsenal (39), with Chelsea (46), Liverpool (44) and Spurs (41) the teams in between.

Considering that Manchester City (62) are now 15 points clear at the top with 20 wins and two draws in the 22 matches so far — threatening to break all sorts of records, in addition to the ones that they’ve already broken —It is safe to say that the league winners is a settled argument.

It would need events almost as historic as City’s run so far — from the league leaders themselves moreover — for anyone but Manchester City to be the league champions come May.

That means what usually transpires around April at the earliest can now be accepted by the so-called chasing pack: everyone else is fighting for the remaining three Top 4 slots.

The top four sides in England qualify for the Champions League — the top two for the main draw, and the bottom two for the qualification stage.

This year England had five representatives in the Champions League, after Manchester United won the Europa League and in turn qualifying for the premier club competition, despite finishing sixth in the league.

All five teams, of course, are still in the tournament as the Champions League knockout stage begins next month.

With the so-called Big Six occupying the top 6 slots in the league table, it’s simply a case of two of the big names missing out on the Champions League next year as per the league positions.

While there’s obvious incentive to finish second to this record breaking City side — which would be a positive in its own — all these five clubs would settle for any of the three positions if they were given to them right now.

Perhaps the one club that needs a higher finish more than anyone else is Manchester United.

Chelsea were the champions last year, while Spurs have been the only side that were title contenders in both the previous seasons — winning neither of course, and finishing second last year.

Liverpool could be satisfied with third or fourth as well. For, that would signify stability after finishing fourth last year — only three points behind third placed City.

After missing out on the top four for the first time in a couple of decades last season, Arsenal should be happy with a fourth placed finish and would happily take it right now, if it were offered to them.

Even so, after having failed to be a part of the title race for the past four seasons, finishing last two out of the top four, Manchester United need runners-up slot more than anyone else.

While last year’s eventual sixth placed finish was overlooked, and even justified, by the eventual Europa League win, being practically out of the league race in December again is definitely a failure of the aspirations that Jose Mourinho’s side had coming into the season.

And so, should any side finish in between City and United it would definitely signify regression for an already underachieving United team, unless they can pull off an unlikely Champions League win.

Even though the European runs for the five sides would also influence their league positions at the end of the season, as things stand, the final standings look likely to mirror the current table, with Spurs and Arsenal missing out on the top four.

While Spurs might have the best player in the country in Harry Kane, they are the likeliest to be distracted by the Champions League, where their ambitions would’ve been heightened by beating two time defending champions Real Madrid in the group stage.

That they’ve drawn Juventus could be telling, for if Spurs can overcome Juventus they would think they have a shot at going all the way. If not, being knocked out in the Round of 16 would be better for their league aspirations than going out at a later stage.

Many had advised Arsenal ahead of the midweek Chelsea clash that a defeat should mean Arsene Wenger’s team bidding a top four adieu and focusing instead on the Europa League, which is what Manchester United did in the last couple of months of their league campaign last season.

While the 2-2 final score line, in one of the matches of the season so far, keeps Arsenal within five points of the top four, there’s a chance they might eventually need to eye the Europa route to the Champions League next season.

United, Chelsea and Liverpool might want to contest a mini race for the second placed finish as things stand, but their Champions League runs would also be crucial in how much energy any club might want to invest in finishing second over third, if it might mean an earlier exit in the Champions League.

Unless Chelsea can overturn an all-conquering Barcelona in the Round of 16, they might have the resources to eventually finish above United and Liverpool, both of whom have winnable draws in the Champions League.

K Shahid

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