There is plenty of intrigue all around the Premier League as the final weeks of a long season approach us, from the title hunt to the battle for survival, but the top four race looks particularly difficult to predict.
Arsenal appeared to be cruising towards their first Champions League campaign in five years but a spate of injuries to a small squad and Monday night’s defeat to Crystal Palace have suddenly opened things up.
Tottenham rose above their old rivals at the weekend and finally appear to be finding some consistency under Antonio Conte, with the January arrivals of Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur impressing, while Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are in form.
Much could depend on the rearranged north London derby, though that will not be played until the middle of May. Manchester United will hope to have saved their season and be back in the hunt by that time, though they currently look a long way off.
West Ham, meanwhile, continue to impress despite fighting on two fronts, with a Europa League campaign to consider. This could be a two, three or four-horse race. The Independent you have looked over each side’s run-in to see where it might be run.
Avg.opponent PPG: 1.27
Run in difficulty: ★★
Tottenham are in the strongest position of all four contenders and not only because they are the team currently in possession of that coveted fourth-place spot. Antonio Conte’s side also have the most favorable run-in.
That is despite their final eight games including the most difficult fixture possible, with a trip to Anfield penciled in for the middle of next month. Liverpool boast the top flight’s only unbeaten home record this season, winning 12 of their 15 games.
Tottenham then have the rearranged north London derby the following midweek, though the Saturday-Thursday gap should leave enough time to recover between the two games and gives them an extra day’s rest on Arsenal.
Outside of those six days, the schedule is kind of on paper. The toughest test that Tottenham face according to points-per-game is at home to an out-of-sorts Brighton with nothing to play for, having comfortably beaten Graham Potter’s side in the reverse fixture last month.
Leicester may have something to say about that but have picked up less than one point per-game on their travels this season. This weekend’s visit to Villa Park is by no means a formality either, but nor is it as stern a test as those faced by Spurs’ rivals.
Conte will certainly hope to get over the line if, by the penultimate weekend, Tottenham still occupy the Champions League spots. Spurs close out the campaign against Burnley at home and Norwich away. Both could already be relegated by that point.
Avg.opponent PPG: 1.43
Run in difficulty: ★★★★
Arsenal have a game in hand on Tottenham, the most fixtures to fulfill all the contenders, and therefore the most points to play for too. But the top-four picture was a lot rosier for Mikel Arteta before Monday’s defeat to Crystal Palace.
This weekend’s visit from Brighton and a subsequent trip to St Mary’s will have to be negotiated carefully, especially as Southampton’s home record is strong, but it is not hard to see where Arsenal’s top-four pursuit will be won and lost.
A five-game run from mid-April to mid-May begins with a trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea look safe enough in third-place but could be dragged into the pack unless Thomas Tuchel turns around a sudden dip in form.
Then, Arsenal face all of their fellow top-four contenders in the space of four games. United visit the Emirates but Arteta’s side will have to travel to West Ham before making the short trip to White Hart Lane for the derby.
An improved Leeds under Jesse Marsch visited the Emirates in the middle of that run. Only Manchester City and Liverpool can boast superior home records to Arsenal this season but five of their last nine games are on the road.
After a trip to St James’ Park on the penultimate weekend, Arsenal close out with a visit from Everton, who have the worst away record in the league. If the fate of Frank Lampard’s side is already sealed, then it should be a routine win. If not, things could be interesting.
Avg.opponent PPG: 1.53
Run in difficulty: ★★★★
A top-four finish is considered the bare minimum every season at Old Trafford but after the latest disappointing result and post-match inquest of a sometimes nightmarish campaign, reality is starting to set in with United.
Returning to the Champions League next season is a big ask for interim manager Ralf Rangnick from here, especially as their run-in is arguably the most difficult of any of the four contenders.
Even this weekend’s trip to Goodison Park should not be taken for granted, with Everton generally performing much better at home than they do away. But drop points either in that game or at home to Norwich the following weekend, United will look well and truly gone.
A pair of trips to Anfield and the Emirates follow, to be played in the space of four days. If United are to salvage a Champions League spot, results will most likely be needed in both games and especially against Arsenal.
The same is true of Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend, though that could be brought forward or shifted around if Tuchel’s side reach the FA Cup final.
United’s run-in is not too unfavorable outside of those three key fixtures but they are among the most difficult possible in the entire schedule. But even the final day trip to Crystal Palace is far from straightforward, as Arsenal found earlier this week.
Though it would not be unheard of for a team in United’s position to turn things around, United do not look much like that team. If Erik ten Hag is to be Old Trafford’s next permanent manager as expected, his first season will be spent in the Europa League at best.
Avg.opponent PPG: 1.31
Run in difficulty: ★★½
It has been another year of impressive overachievement by David Moyes’s men but a loss of momentum in the middle of winter meant West Ham’s early season ambitions of sneaking into the Champions League places were brought down a peg.
A top-four finish still looks unlikely, even though they sit above United in the table on goal difference. West Ham have played 31 games – more than any of the other three contenders – and while they are still in Europe, their rivals can simply focus on domestic matters.
The Europa League campaign was prioritized by Moyes a while ago and rightly so, but if they do not get past Lyon in the quarter-finals and decide to double their efforts in the league, their run-in gives them half a chance.
A trip to Brentford and a visit from Burnley over the next couple of weekends are an excellent chance to keep the pressure on the other three contenders and Moyes will be pleased if West Ham are still in the race by the time they travel to Carrow Road next month.
In order to get that far, however, they will need to come through back-to-back games against Chelsea and Arsenal. Should West Ham fail to pick up at least three points from those two games, and especially if they lose to Arsenal, you imagine their race will be run.
The penultimate weekend sees a meeting with Manchester City, though that could be rearranged depending on City’s progress to the FA Cup final and West Ham’s fortunes in Europe.
Either way, they are likely to run into the champions while they are still hell-bent on defending their title. And by that point, their focus may solely be on a first major European final since 1976.