With Manchester City an absolute shoe in for the Premier League title with four months of the season still to play, the majority of attention has now switched from who will finish the season as champions to who will be joining Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering squad in the three other Champions League-qualifying spots.
City lead the chasing pack, headed up by Manchester United in second by a massive 12 points with 14 matches remaining despite their first defeat of the season on at Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, one of the teams vying strongly for a top four finish. Yes, we all remember how Sir Alex Ferguson’s team of 1995/96 famously overhauled Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United who also held a 12 point lead entering the final straight. However, this Manchester City squad is formidable to say the least. A repeat of that famous Newcastle meltdown is unlikely with Guardiola at the helm. Therefore, here we will analyse the runners and riders for positions two to four in the table and predict the likely finishing order.
At the start of the season many so-called experts and pundits were predicting that the race for the title would come down to a straight scrap between the two Manchester giants. Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho again, a familiar theme from the pairs’ time in charge of bitter rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. After Chelsea’s runaway title win last May, the lavish spending power of the two northern powerhouses blew all of their rivals out of the water last summer. And for the first couple of months of the campaign it looked to the watching world that it would be a contest between the two old foes as City and United went toe-to-toe at the top of the table.
However, after a dip in form that saw United lose crucial matches at Huddersfield and Chelsea as well as a crunch clash at home to City in early December, Mourinho’s men now face a battle with Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham for a top four finish. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger’s much-maligned Arsenal, currently sixth in the table and eight points adrift of the top four, will still be harbouring hopes of sneaking back into the Champions League spots. But have they left themselves too much to do?
January Transfer Window The Key?
With only eight points separating Manchester United in second position and Spurs in fifth, will the transfer window and the ability of England’s top clubs to recruit successfully in the notoriously tough January market prove crucial in the final few months of the season? It could well prove so. No sooner had Liverpool welcomed Dutch centre-half Virgil van Dijk to Anfield for a world record fee for a defender, than the Kopites were mourning the loss of key player Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for a figure in excess of £150 million.
Klopp may however have to wait until the summer to replace his ‘Little Magician’ properly. But with the other three members of the fabled Fab Four remaining on Merseyside, Liverpool look well-placed to claim a top-four finish if they can continue to score more goals than they concede, with defence an area that the charismatic German looks certain to address come the off season.
Elsewhere, the future of Arsenal’s Chilean superstar Alexis Sanchez remains the big talking point of the window. With just six months of his deal remaining at Emirates Stadium, Manchester City had seemed his inevitable destination after a deal for the Chilean to move to the Etihad had broken down at the eleventh hour in August.
However, with City publicly withdrawing from the race to snap up the former Barcelona forward, a straight swap deal for Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been mooted. The deal would surely boost United’s charge for a top four finish significantly but would it signal the end of Arsenal’s hopes of making the top four for a second season in succession? With Mkhitaryan having struggled to show his best form at Old Trafford since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund 18 months ago, has Wenger conceded defeat in the race to secure a top four position already? A Champions League spot could prove more likely if the Gunners can emulate Manchester United’s achievement of winning the Europa League last season, the prize being a spot in next season’s premier European competition.
And then what about London rivals Spurs and Chelsea? Mauricio Pochettino has crafted and nurtured a fine young squad full of exciting attacking players. And with Harry Kane banging in the goals and again leading the goalscoring charts, surely Spurs barring injuries will be there or thereabouts come May. Chelsea, under Antonio Conte will also be fighting to ensure their place among Europe’s elite once again. Currently lying in third position, Conte’s men have endured a dip in form of late and will need to recapture their form of last season if they are to beat their rivals to a top four finish.
Conte has been outspoken in his belief that the Blues have regressed in terms of new signings since his arrival at the Bridge although the club have also been linked with a move for the much-coveted Sanchez this month. Such a move would significantly boost the ranks and would put the West London club amongst the favourites for a top four finish. But who will prevail?
All of the current top five teams have progressed to the knock out stages of this season’s Champions League with some huge matches to come before Easter. If Arsenal do manage to win the Europa League and if the fifth-placed team in the Premier League are able to lift European football’s biggest prize in Madrid in May it is conceivable that the fourth placed team would miss out on Champions League football next term due to UEFA’s maximum of five teams from one country gaining entry to the competition in one season.
Looking at the current standings, Arsenal look doomed to finish outside of the top five while Spurs have some catching up to do. Therefore, with Chelsea still competing in four trophies, will it be Conte’s men who miss out? Our prediction is that they will with United, Liverpool and Spurs joining City in next season’s showpiece competition. Disagree? You can take a look at all the best odds for this and next season’s Champions League by following the link to the Sun Bets website.