With just over six weeks of the domestic football season to play, the top flight has a few similarities to last season in the placings that are least clear. Man City might not be as far clear at the top as Liverpool were, but with a maximum tally of 85 points needed to secure a third title in four years, the dominance of domestic competitions by Pep Guardiola’s team shows no sign of slowing. Below City, Man United are likely to finish in the top two for only the second time since their last title win in 2013.
At the other end of the table, the fight to avoid relegation is going badly for the teams currently in the bottom three, and it will take a dramatic recovery for either Fulham or West Brom to remain in the division for another season.
So, once again, the big battle is the one for the top four places, and the lucrative rewards of a place in next season’s Champions League. Four points currently separate 3rd place Leicester with 6th place Liverpool, and with the in-form London sides of West Ham and Chelsea also in the mix, the final rounds of Premier League football promise plenty of drama.
Having missed out on a top four placing last season due to a significant dip in form over the second half of the season, Leicester have been impressed again this season and looked to have taken advantage of the inconsistency of rival clubs.
However, despite sitting comfortably in the top three at the end of March, back-to-back losses against Man City and West Ham have left Leicester in a much more precarious position, dragging the club into a battle with West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool.
As was the case during the team’s poor run of results last season, the goals of Jamie Vardy have dried up and with just one gaol from his last 18 appearances, a striker who was amongst the early favourites for the Premier League golden boot may not even end the season as Leicester City’s top scorer.
Leicester’s difficult fixtures over the final three rounds of league games, during which they will face Man United, Chelsea and Spurs, won’t make for an easy finale, and a pursuit of silverware, with a potential FA Cup final on the horizon, could have an impact on league form. This weekend’s FA Cup semi final will give the other sides a chance to pile further pressure on Leicester, who could sit just a point away from 6th place by the time of their next league match.
Whether Leicester can hold onto a Champions League place or not, it’s likely that the battle will again go down to the final week or two of the season.
Considering the strength of the teams that were most likely to be in contention for a top four place, the sight of West Ham occupying fourth place with less than 6 weeks of the season to play is not something that would have been widely predicted.
But, as results the season have demonstrated, the position of David Moyes’ side is no fluke. Since the start of October, West Ham have lost to only four teams in all competitions: Man City, Liverpool, Man United and Chelsea. Or, last season’s top four.
Recent performances in big games suggest that the team have what it takes to remain in the top four, especially with only two remaining fixtures against opponents currently in the top half of the table – both of which are are home.
With West Ham only a point behind Leicester, and with arguably a much more winnable set of fixtures, there will almost certainly be some margin for dropping the odd point without it being too costly, and matching the 3rd place finish of 1985-6, which remains West Ham’s highest ever top flight league placing, is not unrealistic.
A recent 5-2 home defeat against relegation-threatened West Brom may well feature amongst the most surprising Premier League results of the season, but it won’t have done too much damage to Chelsea’s quest for another season of Champions League football.
Since a goalless draw against Wolves in Thomas Tuchel’s first match in charge, only Man City have dropped fewer league points than Chelsea, and the measure of how consistent results have been can also be seen by the team’s progression through to semi finals of the Champions League and FA Cup.
But while Chelsea have a large enough squad to cope with the demands of playing more games than the teams around them in the table, the fixtures still to come – in all competitions – make for a gruelling finale if Chelsea are to be successful in their objectives.
Based on recent form, it would be foolish to bet against Chelsea climbing into the top four, but with a second European Cup win still a possibility, there’ll be as much focus on winning this season’s competition than on qualifying for next season’s.
It sums up Liverpool’s season that their current position would have been seen as unthinkable for opposing reasons at different stages of the year. Having topped the league at Christmas, and with the hope of welcoming back at least some of their injured stars, Liverpool looked in a good position to defend the title won so comfortably last year.
And yet, so dramatic was the Reds’ slide down the table that during March, it was looking highly improbable that they could get back into realistic contention for a top four place, such was the gap in points, combined with a sizeable group of teams better placed – and in better form.
But for all of Liverpool’s difficulties during 2021, the team remains one of the strongest in the league, even with so many absences of key players, and there have been plenty of recent signs that Liverpool can deliver the run of results needed to get back into the top four.
Four wins from the five games, prior to the Champions League quarter final second leg against Real Madrid, is Liverpool’s best run since early November, and five away wins from the last six Premier League matches – including visits to Spurs, West Ham and Arsenal – is evidence that Liverpool can still deliver when it matters.
There is plenty more work ahead for Liverpool if they’re to overtake at least two of the sides detailed above, particularly with a run-in that contains a some potentially tricky away fixtures, but with all hopes of silverware ended after being knocked out of Europe, a top four place is Liverpool’s only remaining target – and one which is achieveable.
Spurs and Everton
Recent form suggests that neither Spurs nor Everton will realistically finish in the top four, but both teams have been in and out of the race throughout the season.
Spurs would have moved above Liverpool had they taken three points against Man United at the weekend, and having earned just four points from the last 12 available, there now seems too much of a gap to make up over the remaining seven games – beginning with a trip to Everton tomorrow evening.
Although currently placed below Spurs, Everton have a game in hand with which they could move to within a point of Liverpool, and within five points of 3rd placed Leicester City.
But while there have been major signs of progress in Carlo Ancelotti’s first full year in charge, Everton have also had a few spells of four or five games without a win.
And with a home record since late December that is only marginally better than Liverpool’s woeful home form, there isn’t a lot of evidence that Everton are capable of a lengthy winning run that would be needed to move them into the Champions League placings. Europa League qualification is a more realistic target, but an improvement in results is badly needed if there is to be any reward at the end of a season of steady progress.