The international break has come at an interesting time. With just seven or eight games left for most clubs (Brighton have nine remaining), managers will have mixed feelings over their key players going off on international duty for the first time in four months.
On the one hand, they will welcome a bit of ‘free time’ to prepare for the final six weeks of the season. At the same time, though, they will nervously check their phones half-expecting to hear of an injury to one of their star men.
It does, however, provide an opportunity to reflect on the current state of affairs. Here, we look at the Premier League title race, the tussle for Champions League qualification and the scrap to avoid relegation.
Unlike Manchester City’s canter to their third Premier League crown last season, the current title race looks as though it will go down to the wire.
This past weekend was a nail-biting one for Liverpool fans. With City in FA Cup action, Sunday’s trip to Craven Cottage offered the chance to temporarily pull ahead.
And, when Sadio Mane drove home Roberto Firmino’s cut-back in the 26th-minute, it looked as though it was business as usual for Jurgen Klopp’s men.
But a former Red complicated matters. Ryan Babel, symbolically sporting a ghastly red barnet, pounced on a mix-up between Virgil van Dijk and Alisson to equalise for Fulham.
But Liverpool hit back, James Milner converting an 81st-minute penalty after Mane had been fouled by Sergio Rico.
The result leaves Liverpool top of the pile for the next two weeks. City, however, will have their own chance to reclaim top spot with a win at Fulham when the Premier League returns on March 30.
And if that wasn’t enough, Liverpool host Tottenham at Anfield the following day. It remains tight, incredibly exciting and almost impossible to call.
Tottenham: 61 points. Arsenal: 60 points. Manchester United: 58 points. Chelsea: 57 points. Yes, there isn’t much separating the sides between third and sixth place.
The race for fourth has become the race for third thanks to Spurs’ slip back into the pack. From outside title contenders, they are now hoping to fend off those below them and guarantee Champions League football for next season.
Of course, as has been pointed out recently, finishing fourth may not be enough. As no more than five clubs from England can qualify for the 2019/20 Champions League, if a Premier League team wins both the Champions League and Europa League, the team who finishes fourth will drop down into the latter competition. Also, the team who finishes third will go into the qualifying round of next season’s Champions League seeing as the Champions League and Europa League winners are guaranteed a group stage spot.
It’s unlikely but not impossible. As mentioned earlier, Spurs will find it tough taking all three points away at Anfield in two weeks’ time, which could open the door for Arsenal, United and Chelsea, who play Newcastle, Watford and Cardiff respectively.
United still have to travel to Wolves and host Manchester City and Chelsea, so their run-in is fraught with danger. Spurs have Liverpool and City to come. Arsenal don’t have to face another top-six side but do have tricky trips to Watford, Everton and Leicester to come. Chelsea must travel to Liverpool and United.
Good luck making four go into town out of this lot. Again, it’s too close to call.
Fulham and Huddersfield gave it a go over the weekend. The Terriers, who have been bottom for much of the season, led 3-2 at West Ham only to lose 4-3, sunk by a couple of late Javier Hernandez goals.
The Cottagers gave Liverpool a scare but also came up short. Fulham and Huddersfield, 13 and 17 points away from safety respectively, look doomed.
The team that will be joining them in next year’s Championship is far from determined. Cardiff are 18th on 28 points but have a game in hand on Burnley which, if they win, will take them above the Clarets. Southampton, also on 30 points, are ahead of Burnley on goal difference but have also played a game less. Brighton and Crystal Palace are both on 33 points having played 29 and 30 games respectively.
Burnley host Cardiff on April 13 before the Welsh side travel to Fulham and entertain Palace. Burnley have a tough run-in, including trips to Wolves and Chelsea and home games against Manchester City and Arsenal.
Next up for Southampton is a huge clash with Brighton at the Amex before the Saints welcome Liverpool to St. Mary’s. Palace aren’t safe yet, either; they still have to face Spurs, City and Arsenal.
It’s not often we get a Premier League campaign which produces a genuine title race, four teams in the mix for two Champions League spots and a frantic scramble to avoid the drop.
There will be ecstasy for some teams, devastation for others. The remainder of the Premier League season is going to be white-knuckle thrill-ride, destined to wreak havoc on the nerves of the fans involved. It’s everything we could have hoped for back in August.
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