April 19, 2021

Man Utd

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Manchester United: Red Devils look comfortable but Chelsea must starting scoring in top four race

11 min read

Manchester City‘s Champions League place might be all but guaranteed, but for the rest of the Premier League’s top 10 the race is well and truly on.

Just 13 points separate Manchester United in second and Arsenal in 10th, while the Gunners are only eight points behind fourth-placed West Ham.

The Hammers have undoubtedly been this season’s surprise package, with David Moyes emerging as a genuine Manager of the Year contender after being the favourite for the sack before the season began.

Runaway leaders Manchester City are the only team who appear assured of a top four place

Runaway leaders Manchester City are the only team who appear assured of a top four place

But as well as West Ham, Everton and Aston Villa are making the battle for the top four the most intriguing and exciting element of this strange top-flight season.

The Toffees are back in the mix after finally beating rivals Liverpool at Anfield and holding out for a hard-fought win over Southampton on Monday night, while Villa have two games in hand on most of their rivals.

Here, Sportsmail takes a closer look at each of the contenders – including injury-hit Leicester and inconsistent Tottenham – to see which sides are best placed to seal a much-coveted place in the Champions League next term. 

The top 10 in the Premier League table, with nine clubs chasing three Champions League spots

The top 10 in the Premier League table, with nine clubs chasing three Champions League spots

MANCHESTER UNITED

Position: 2nd (50 points)

Roy Keane may have criticised his old side for not going all out to beat Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, but there is strong argument for just not losing games against your rivals.

The 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge meant Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side moved a point ahead of Leicester and West Ham in the race for the top four, and didn’t allow Thomas Tuchel’s resurgent side to close the gap.

While United’s title bid has faltered since the turn of the year – in large part to City’s incredible winning run – they remain well on course to finish in a Champions League position.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw his side avoid defeat against another Big Six rival on Sunday evening

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw his side avoid defeat against another Big Six rival on Sunday evening

The stalemate at Stamford Bridge was preceded by a comfortable home win over Newcastle and they will fancy their chances of beating Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Wednesday night.

Finishing as the best of the rest now seems to be the goal for Solskjaer, who has wavered between dismissing United’s title chances and talking them up this season.

This Sunday’s huge Manchester derby at the Etihad could keep their faint hopes of overtaking City alive, or put even more emphasis on staying in the top four.

Either way, with most of Solskjaer’s squad fit and his side unbeaten in well over a month, United look well-placed finish the season strongly.

TOP FOUR ODDS (via Betfair): 1/7

LEICESTER

Position: 3rd (49 points)

While United’s bid to finish in the top four is progressing nicely, Leicester’s season still looks to be on a knife-edge.

The Foxes’ domestic form had been impressive before last weekend, with wins over Villa and Liverpool preceded by a draw away at Wolves and three points at Fulham.

But Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat by Arsenal, a game in which they took the lead early before capitulating, has raised fears of another poor finish.

Brendan Rodgers’ men looked nailed-on for a Champions League place for most of last season, but their form dipped dramatically in Project Restart and they ended up coming fifth, four points behind Chelsea.

Jonny Evans, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi (L-R) look dejected during the Arsenal defeat

Jonny Evans, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi (L-R) look dejected during the Arsenal defeat

But while the concerns from last term still linger, it is Leicester’s growing injury crisis which will have Rodgers worried this time around.

Wesley Fofana could be back for Wednesday’s trip to Burnley, but the Foxes are currently without Ayoze Perez, Jonny Evans, James Maddison, Dennis Praet, Wes Morgan and star winger Harvey Barnes, who will be sidelined for up to six weeks.

Barnes, who has been in sparkling form this season, will be a huge loss over a crucial period of winnable games against the likes of Brighton and Sheffield United.  

They are still among the heavy favourites to finish in the top four and have a five-point buffer on fifth-placed Chelsea, but it is not a forgone conclusion as last season showed. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 8/13

WEST HAM

Position: 4th (45 points)

Who would’ve thought West Ham would be in the top four with just 12 games of the season left to play?

Even the most optimistic Hammers supporter might have struggled to predict the campaign they’ve enjoyed so far, and the newfound enthusiasm among the club’s fanbase was evident in the wake of Saturday’s narrow defeat by Manchester City.

Moyes’ men gave the champions-in-waiting a game at the Etihad and could’ve come away with a point on another day. Fans were left feeling proud of the effort and performance, rather than disappointed with the loss. 

West Ham's players celebrate Michail Antonio's goal in their narrow defeat by Manchester City

West Ham’s players celebrate Michail Antonio’s goal in their narrow defeat by Manchester City

There will be no hangover from that result when West Ham face Leeds next Monday, although a tough run of games against United, Arsenal, Wolves and Leicester could be make-or-break for their Champions League hopes. 

Hammers favourite Joe Cole is certainly not ruling his old side out, telling BT Sport on Saturday: ‘You get into the top-four this year and it’s one of the biggest achievement in the club’s history.

‘If you keep going in the right direction and into the upper echelons of the league regularly, you’ll attract players because you’re London and it’s a great club.

‘It’s exciting times. I’d love to see a Barcelona or an AC Milan coming to the London Stadium because the fans deserve it.’ 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 5/1

CHELSEA

Position: 5th (44 points)

Thomas Tuchel has now spent a month in the Stamford Bridge hotseat, and although the football might not be quite as thrilling, Chelsea’s top four hopes have received a significant boost since his arrival.

The former PSG boss was tasked with turning around the club’s poor form under Frank Lampard and making sure they didn’t end up in the Europa League or worse.

An impressive unbeaten run has done exactly that, although back-to-back draws with struggling Southampton and United have slowed their momentum slightly.

Goals have been the major issue in Tuchel’s brief reign so far, with Timo Werner still struggling for form and Tammy Abraham failing to make the squad against United.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel appears frustrated during Sunday's 0-0 draw with Man United

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel appears frustrated during Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Man United

However, former Blues striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink believes his old side have enough to finish in the top four despite their struggles in front of goal.

‘I’m more convinced that Chelsea will make it because at the moment, they don’t get any goals against and that’s a big thing,’ he told Sky Sports on Sunday.

‘They only need to score one goal to win matches, they’re not getting counter-attacked that much. ‘Also, they’re not getting goals against in set pieces so in that aspect its good. 

‘Against Manchester United they got the best chance in the game and I still believe Chelsea will be in the top four.’

TOP FOUR ODDS: EVENS

LIVERPOOL

Position: 6th (43 points)

If it wasn’t obvious from Liverpool’s league position and the points gap to runaway leaders Manchester City, finishing in a top four place is now the goal for Jurgen Klopp and his players.

The German looked visibly upset when admitting that his side’s bid to retain the title was over last month, but the hope is that pushing to ensure Champions League football returns to Anfield next season is enough to motivate Mo Salah and Co.

They improved their chances of doing just that on Sunday evening, ending a wretched run of four straight league defeats with a deserved win at Sheffield United.

There was a danger that the previous week’s 2-0 home loss to rivals Everton – the Toffees’ first Anfield victory in 22 years – would further damage Liverpool’s fragile confidence.

Liverpool returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory at Sheffield United on Sunday evening

Liverpool returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory at Sheffield United on Sunday evening

But Klopp was thrilled with the effort and attitude of his players at Bramall Lane, and believes they have what it takes to battle back into the top four.

‘It was very important [the result] because plenty of people have written us off and that’s completely fine,’ he said after the game. ‘It’s about us to show we are still there and tonight, we showed that. On Thursday, we play Chelsea and we have to show it again. 

‘There’s no way without results into the Champions League and that’s what we need. We got it tonight and now we keep on going.’ 

Win Thursday’s game against fifth-placed Chelsea and not only will the Reds jump above their opponents, they’ll also overtake West Ham to go fourth. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 8/15

EVERTON

Position: 7th (43 points)

Everton’s hopes of a top four finish looked almost over after back-to-back home defeats by Fulham and City in the space of just four days in mid-February.

But fast-forward a couple of weeks and things now look a lot rosier at Goodison Park following consecutive victories over Liverpool and Southampton.

While the historic win at Anfield meant a huge amount to supporters, following it up with three points against the Saints – and ending a miserable run of form at home – will have meant just as much to manager Carlo Ancelotti.

The Toffees have a game in hand against West Brom on Thursday, with three points enough to catapult them back into fourth if other results go their way. 

Richarlison is congratulated by his Everton team-mates after scoring against Southampton

Richarlison is congratulated by his Everton team-mates after scoring against Southampton

Despite being boosted by the return to fitness of key midfielder Allan, former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher believes the team he supported as a boy will miss out on Champions League football.

‘Are Everton good enough [to finish in the top four]?’ he said on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football following the Blues’ 1-0 win. ‘I think they may just fall short.

‘The squad of players is maybe just short of some of the other sides, you think of Liverpool and Chelsea. But if you look at the manager they have got, we have already spoken about his record and also how much of an impact he has had at Everton. 

‘I think if Everton are to get to the top four a lot of it will be down to Ancelotti. I think other teams fighting for it maybe have better XIs or squads, but with that man in charge anything is possible.’ 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 11/2

TOTTENHAM

Position: 8th (39 points)

Having found himself stuck in the Europa League this season, Jose Mourinho is refusing to give up on a top four finish despite Spurs’ up-and-down form. 

The Portuguese’ hopes of playing in Europe’s elite competition next term were boosted by a 4-0 thrashing of Burnley last weekend, but Harry Kane and Co will need to continue in that vein if they are to close the gap on those above them.

The return to form of Gareth Bale, who scored twice in Sunday’s rout, will certainly help, with the on-loan Real Madrid star increasingly looking like his old self.

However, Roy Keane believes Tottenham’s failure to deliver in big games, when the pressure is really on, is what will cost them in the race for the top four. 

Gareth Bale celebrates after opening the scoring in Tottenham's 4-0 thrashing of Burnley

Gareth Bale celebrates after opening the scoring in Tottenham’s 4-0 thrashing of Burnley

Speaking as a pundit on Sky Sports on Sunday, the former Manchester United midfielder said: ‘Spurs, Champions League? (shakes head)

‘It was easy for them today, I said before the game: on their day, they’re a tidy team. Burnley were desperate, I cannot believe how bad they were. Spurs have done well today, and I’ve given them credit over the years, they’re a nice team, but it was easy for them today.

‘I could have played in that game today. When they come up in the big games, they usually come short. They have the cup competitions, the Europa League and League Cup, they should focus on that – I can’t see them getting top four, no chance.’

Spurs will look to prove Keane wrong in a triple-header of London derbies against Fulham, Palace and bitter rivals Arsenal over the next fortnight. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 11/2

ASTON VILLA

Position: 9th (39 points)

Villa’s European ambitions seem to have gone under the radar in recent weeks, but should they win their two games in hand they could well find themselves fourth.

The prospect of Champions League football would’ve seemed unthinkable a year ago as Dean Smith’s side fought for Premier League survival, but their recruitment has ensured a battle at the other end of the table.

Ollie Watkins, Ross Barkley and Emiliano Martinez have all proved to be excellent signings, while Jack Grealish’s performances have made the difference.

Aston Villa continued their bid for European football with a narrow win at Leeds on Saturday

Aston Villa continued their bid for European football with a narrow win at Leeds on Saturday

Villa’s talisman has missed their last two games through injury and will again be missing for Wednesday’s clash with Sheffield United. They can only cope without him for so long.

Saturday’s 1-0 win at Leeds without Grealish was an important moment, and Smith will hope others step up in his captain’s absence at Bramall Lane.

The fixture list is on Villa’s side, however, with winnable games against Wolves, Newcastle, Spurs and Fulham over the next month. 

TOP FOUR ODDS: 10/1

ARSENAL

Position: 10 (37 points) 

Arsenal may only just be inside the Premier League’s top 10, but they are still in the hunt for the top four. Just.

Mikel Arteta’s men have an uphill battle on their hands despite Saturday’s impressive win at Leicester, but their upcoming fixtures present an opportunity.

After a trip to Burnley on Saturday, the Gunners have the chance to take points off those around them in games against Tottenham, West Ham and Liverpool.

Win those and Champions League football may no longer be a pipe dream. Lose them and the Europa League is the very best they can hope for. 

Nicolas Pepe wheels away after scoring Arsenal's third goal in their win over Leicester City

Nicolas Pepe wheels away after scoring Arsenal’s third goal in their win over Leicester City

Club legend Paul Merson is less than optimistic about their hopes of a top four finish, however, recently saying: ‘I can’t see Arsenal doing anything between now and the end of the season to get into the top four.

‘I played at Arsenal for a good number of years a long time ago and it is just a phenomenal football club. It’s a Rolls Royce of a football club but when you look where they are now, it’s just hard to watch.

‘Man City used to be a million miles away and talk about turning things on its head, they are so far ahead of Arsenal. The only thing that can give you hope if you are an Arsenal fan is that you can watch City and think things can turn around.’

TOP FOUR ODDS: 17/1

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