When Leicester City won the league back in 2016 we were told that the chances of the Big Six teams (Manchester City – Manchester United – Chelsea – Liverpool – Arsenal – Spurs) in England all underperforming at the same time was a 1 in 50 situation that would rarely be repeated, if ever. It seemed a legitimate scenario as the likes of a Leicester win in my lifetime at least was never even a remote possibility. For this season though if we take the immaculate form of a Liverpool side that have taken 100 of the last 102 points available out of the equation the other 5 clubs are very much going through the motions.
Now that the transfer window is closed, the chase for the coveted top 4 places in the Premier League is gaining momentum with a number of clubs chasing Champions League football for once not completely confined to the usual suspects. We take a look this week at the potential winners and failures of this year’s league and try to predict the eventual outcome.
Liverpool and City already have their hands on the top 2 places even though City are somewhat off the pace when you compare their run to the title this time last season. But they’ll still have enough to ease their way to the runners up spot. The surprise package in this is the form of Leicester City with a 12 point gap to 5th placed Spurs but with nothing nailed on in football it would still be a huge collapse from Brendan Rodgers’ men to succumb to zero pressure from the chasing pack. So already this makes for one team this season to seize an opportunity to play with Europe’s elite. Hats off to Brendan Rodgers for taking them back to a familiar place with his young and exciting squad.
The meat and bones of this chase is of course the battle for 4th place with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal – all of whom would have had serious aspirations of finishing in the top4 at the beginning of the season showing and incredible lack of form going into the final hurdle. This has allowed Sheffield United and Wolves the chance to dare to dream of a season that their fans would have bitten your hand off back in August.
Wolves have been many peoples default second favourite team both this and last season, mainly due to their style of attractive football mixed with their willingness to give everything for the cause. Anyone that has seen their home grounds pyrotechnic shows before a game knows that they certainly live up to the excitement. Their manager Nuno Espirito Santo has enhanced his reputation this season as they seem to be able to go toe-to-toe with the big teams on a regular basis. He has somehow turned Adama Traore into an almost superstar even if the jury is still out on his ability to do it longterm. But they possess an insatiable desire to attack and with players like Jota and the excellent Jimenez they will open up most defences. The concern for Wolves is that even after such an impressive season thus far they are not and have not been in the Top 4 all season and with the Europa League adding so many miles to their legs this season, it is hard to see them winning enough games to close a 6 point gap on Chelsea.
Verdict : Close but the games are starting to add up on the legs of the Wolves first 11. Europa League, 6th place finish.
Manchester United still flatter to deceive. Capable of back to back wins over City and Spurs, they looked like Ole had finally found the balance to produce the goods, but unfortunately their unwillingness to attack teams that sit back with the same effectiveness as their counter attack suggests that they’ll struggle to defeat the teams that sit deep and defend. Bruno Fernandes was an important piece of business to secure in the window – for a midfield that seems bereft of any attacking flair but will it be too little too late for a team that is missing it’s most effective marksman in Rashford? Signing Igalo seems to be a purchase that is laden with desperation and suddenly goes against the initial model of buying up young English talent. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still doesn’t seem to be able to gather any consistency with this group of players and the warning signs are getting ominous as the stadium empties before the 90th minute. It would take a brave man to back this United team to take a run of 9 wins from 12 games, something they have not even remotely looked like achieving since Ole signed his new contract. With Chelsea and Watford sandwiched between two ties against Club Brugge they’ll need to beat the pensioners away from home in order to catch them.
Verdict : Need another summer of clearing out the deadwood and some fresh faces to get their squad competing again. Europa League.
Sheffield United have been the surprise package of the Premier League this season. Secure already in their first stint in the top flight since 2007 they are now playing no-pressure football and it is paying off! Chris Wilder has had an incredible season so far and must be thinking he could turn water to wine. With impressive performances against Liverpool and City he has the blades playing with an incredible appetite for the game. Irish interests are also heavily invested in this team with Stevens/Robinson and McGoldrick all contributing this season. This squad of players are the epitome of the work ethic that is required for any serious player. Could they dare to dream and land a spot at Europe’s biggest competition? Only time will tell.
Verdict : They have achieved their goals and more already this season but will just fall short of a miracle Europa League spot. 8th Place.
Spurs are the almost unknown quantity this year with the contrasting methods of their new manager versus the removed Pochetinho. Now that Ericksson has departed though I have a feeling they can kick on this season and bring a big finish. They still have the attacking talent in their armoury with the impressive duo of Son and Moura making them highly dangerous but it is the defencive crutch that is killing this Spurs side as they are missing a world class holding midfielder – something that Jose Mourinho has always had as his fulcrum. Instead Spurs have had to contend with a combination of Winks/Dier or Ndombele/Sissoko. Injuries have prevented Jose from selecting his best pairing and that is why they still concede regularly. I’d go as far as saying it’s the most attacking Mourinho side I’ve seen in a decade! But if course that is not his intention – nor will it be a reality when he gets all his players back. Spurs’ season will revolve around the Champions League and Qualifying again for it as priority. I imagine Jose and Levy are having sleepless nights thinking of missing out on the elite competition.
Verdict: Desperation will see them chase Chelsea down until the last weekend but will fall a few points short. 5th.
Chelsea have the pole position having recovered from their difficult Christmas period to steady the ship and pick up a run of 6 games which included 2 wins 3 draws and a single loss but something is not right at the club where Lampard himself admits he needs some recruitment – ironic that he was most likely only placed in the job on the basis that he was not going to get those reinforcements in the first place – rather to steady the ship for a season and introduce young hungry players to the fold. Lampard himself has been in fighting form as he has publicly called out the owner for investment in the transfer window only to be shown the cold shoulder, but now he has also called out the world most expensive keeper – Kepa Arizabalaga– as needing to improve and has dropped him from his starting line-up. For someone in the early stages of nurturing the likes of Mount, Abraham and Tomori he seems to have lost his focus and maybe showing the signs of pressure for the first time. But lucky for Lampard he has plenty of goalscorers in his team and with a good blend of experience with Kante and Jorginho showing his young troops how to battle I’m still tipping them to keep ahead of the chasing pack although it might run down to the last game or two.
Verdict : Champions League for the pensioners. If Lampard can hold it together. 4th place.
So there we have it. A Top 4 of Liverpool – City – Leicester – Chelsea to make the current table to deeply resemble the end of season despite 12 odd games left. What a coup from Leicester to out perform the likes of Spurs and United to gain entry to the promised land. Only a run of 8 wins in 10 games can turn it around for those outside the top 4. If they haven’t done so before now I see no reason why it would happen in the coming weeks. I’ll still be rooting for Sheffield United to keep up their fine form until the end of the season but they should look at Wolves to see why the Europa League can be a poisoned chalice. Be careful what you wish for.