Soccer  

Predicting the Premier League title race, fight for top four

The Premier League hits the halfway stage this week and the clubs chasing the title and or a top-four finish — and with it, Champions League qualification for next season — face a crucial set of fixtures in the days ahead.

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Manchester City take on Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday, Liverpool play Chelsea two days later and leaders Arsenal meet a resurgent Manchester United at the Emirates on Sunday. Each of those games have become huge for different reasons for the teams involved.

And with the so-called “Big Six” all facing games against each other (while Man United also play Crystal Palace on Wednesday), third-placed Newcastle United can maintain their surprise title challenge by beating Palace at St James’ Park on Saturday.

The prospects of each team will become clearer at the end of this pivotal week, but what are they all chasing and how will the season pan out from this point onward?

– Premier League: Standings | Schedule | Statistics


ARSENAL

1st place, 47 points, +28 goal difference

The objective

At the start of the season, Arsenal simply wanted to finish in the top four and return to the Champions League for the first time since 2017. But the Gunners are now aiming much higher, and having opened an eight-point lead at the top of the table, Mikel Arteta’s team are now favourites to win the title for the first time since 2004.

What do they need?

Arsenal have lost just once all season in the league, against Manchester United at Old Trafford in September, and have dropped only seven points in 18 games. If they maintain that kind of form, Arsenal could hit 100 points, but with all of their rivals displaying inconsistency at some stage of this campaign, it will not take such a high total to win the title. If they win all 20 of their remaining games, Manchester City would still only amass 99 points, so Arsenal simply need to hold their nerve and make the most of their eight-point advantage.

What can go wrong?

Arteta’s team is just that: a team. They are a collective that doesn’t rely on one outstanding player, but captain Martin Odegaard, winger Bukayo Saka and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale have grown as the season has progressed. If Arsenal were to lose any of those players, or midfielder Thomas Partey, for a lengthy period, they would find it tough to replace them. But they have not yet been impacted by Gabriel Jesus’ absence through injury since the World Cup. The one question to be answered is how Arsenal react to a setback or poor run of results. Do they have the squad depth and experience to stay the course? So far, they have been unfazed by the pressure of being leaders.

Where will they finish?

As champions. Sunday’s win at Tottenham was huge. Arsenal are now favourites, and rightly so.


MANCHESTER CITY

2nd, 39 pts, +28 GD

The objective

Make no mistake, Manchester City’s objective this season is to win the Champions League, and if they do that, a barren season in the domestic competitions won’t worry anyone at the Etihad. But City are attempting to become only the fifth English club to win three successive league titles, and coach Pep Guardiola loves making history, so they will be desperate to reel Arsenal in.

What do they need?

City need to find some consistent form. They have won only four of their past eight games in all competitions and have lost their past two, so these are unusually difficult times for Guardiola’s side. Back in 2017-18, City won a record 18 successive Premier League games, and they may have to do that again to turn the screw on Arsenal. With the champions still to play the Gunners home and away this season, they can turn the situation around with wins in both fixtures.

What can go wrong?

Maybe it has already started to go wrong. City have scored just six goals in their past eight away games in all competitions, and Erling Haaland, incredibly, has scored in just two away games since September. The free-flowing attacking football that City have mastered under Guardiola brought goals galore, but they have lost that fluency with Haaland in the team. Yes, they now have a formidable goal scorer, but away from home at least, opponents have found a way to stop City. Unless they can rediscover their cutting edge, the title will slip away.

Where will they finish?

Second. City have given themselves too much to do, and their margin for error is now too thin for them to catch Arsenal.


NEWCASTLE UNITED

3rd, 38 pts, +22 GD

The objective

European qualification and a first trophy since 1969 would have been a dream scenario at the start of the season and Eddie Howe’s team are on course for both. But a place in the Carabao Cup semifinals has been eclipsed by league form that sees Newcastle still in the title race and firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot.

What do they need?

Newcastle need goals. Although they have the best defensive record in the league, the goals are beginning to dry up, with only one scored in their past three Premier League games. The return to fitness of club-record signing Alexander Isak could be crucial, however. The Sweden international scored the late winner in the 1-0 victory over Fulham on Sunday, and he now has three goals in four league appearances. If he can maintain form and fitness, Isak can be the man to score the goals to secure a top-four finish, especially if Miguel Almiron (nine in 19) continues his impressive season.

What can go wrong?

Newcastle are in unknown territory at the top end of the table having spent the best part of the past decade fighting relegation or attempting to win promotion back to the top flight. Their squad is still stocked with players who underperformed for years under previous managers, so can they sustain the team’s remarkable run that has seen them lose just once in the league all season? Howe has made some astute signings and transformed the team’s existing players, but when the heat is on, Newcastle’s lack of depth and genuine top-four quality could be their downfall.

Where will they finish?

Fifth. Newcastle have exceeded all expectations so far, but their rivals have better squads and players who are experienced in dealing with the pressure of the run-in.


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1:16

Burley: Man United are in the title race after win vs. Man City

Craig Burley believes Man United are in the Premier League title race after their 2-1 win over Man City.

MANCHESTER UNITED

4th, 38 pts, +8 GD

The objective

United’s primary goal under new manager Erik ten Hag at the start of the season was to finish in the top four and stabilise after the club’s worst-ever Premier League campaign in 2021-22. A nightmare start with two successive defeats made that target look optimistic, but United are back on course and still alive in four competitions as they attempt to end a six-year trophy drought. Saturday’s win against City has sparked talk of a title bid. That seems premature, but if they beat Palace and Arsenal this week, United will be serious contenders.

What do they need?

Ten Hag has somehow brought results, consistency, confidence and belief back to Old Trafford in less than six months, and United simply need to sustain their revival. In the top 10, only Chelsea (22) have scored fewer goals than United (29), so there is obvious room for improvement in that department, hence the loan signing of Netherlands forward Wout Weghorst from Burnley. United have climbed into the top four thanks largely to Marcus Rashford’s recent streak of eight goals in seven games, so Weghorst’s arrival is well-timed with Ten Hag needing an extra threat up front. But this is a decisive week. United have won nine games in a row, and if they make it 10 and 11 at Selhurst Park and the Emirates, the momentum could push United very close to the title.

What can go wrong?

United have had too many false dawns to mention in the decade since legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all saw great runs fizzle out into disappointment. While it feels different under Ten Hag, United could be knocked off course if any of Rashford, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes or Raphael Varane were to miss a series of games. United are clearly on an upward trajectory again, but their lack of depth in key areas means they need to be lucky with injuries and suspensions.

Where will they finish?

Third. United are looking strong again, but they aren’t ready to win the title, and Arsenal and City will pull clear.


TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

5th, 33 pts, +10 GD

The objective

Spurs looked well-placed to comfortably finish in the top four this season, but coach Antonio Conte’s team has been affected by inconsistency and injury to key players. So Spurs are once again facing a battle in the second half of the season to finish fourth and, at the same time, do enough to convince star striker Harry Kane that he can achieve his ambitions at the club. With Kane’s contract due to expire in June 2024, this is a huge six months for the club and the England captain.

What do they need?

Spurs have won three of their past eight games in all competitions, but they now face a potentially decisive run of three games that will shape their season. Conte’s team face City home and away, on either side of a London derby against high-flying Fulham at Craven Cottage, and they realistically need at least four points from those games to keep alive their flickering hope of a top-four finish. With a five-point gap between themselves and fourth-placed United, Spurs are already losing ground, and banking four points from their next three games looks a tall order considering their recent form.

What can go wrong?

The nightmare scenario is an injury to Kane, and the 29-year-old has had bad luck with injuries in the past, so his fitness will always be a worry. But even if Kane stays fit, Spurs have a mountain to climb to finish in the top four, and there is a risk that their form deteriorates further and they end up in a battle for Europa League qualification. And then there is Conte’s combustible personality. Right now, results and performances suggest a meltdown might not be far away.

Where will they finish?

Seventh. Spurs are drifting and they are not only at risk of being caught by Liverpool and Chelsea, but also by Fulham, Brentford and Brighton & Hove Albion.


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1:20

Was Liverpool’s loss to Brighton their worst performance under Klopp?

Steve Nicol struggles to remember a worse Liverpool performance since Jurgen Klopp took over in 2015.

LIVERPOOL

9th, 28 pts, +9 GD

The objective

Liverpool were expected to challenge for the title at the start of the season. It seems a lifetime ago now, but don’t forget that they were just two results away from achieving the Quadruple last season. Their title hopes evaporated months ago, but Jurgen Klopp’s team are targeting a top-four finish and, optimistically, Champions League glory.

What do they need?

A period of calm and stability, which can only come about with victories and key players returning from injury. Virgil van Dijk, Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino and Luis Diaz are all sidelined right now, and the team has suffered badly as a result of their absences. Liverpool also need to find some consistency in midfield. But although they are now 10 points adrift of fourth, Liverpool still possess the goal threat to turn the situation around. Two years ago, they overturned a 10-point deficit with nine games to go to finish in the top four, so they know what it takes and can still come good.

What can go wrong?

Klopp would probably say that everything that could possibly go wrong has already happened this season. Injuries to Mohamed Salah or goalkeeper Alisson would probably be the final blow to Liverpool’s top-four hopes, but the injured players are now on their way back to fitness. Maybe Liverpool have hit rock-bottom already, and the time has now come for a revival.

Where will they finish?

Fourth. Newcastle’s inexperience and the inconsistency of the other Champions League challengers is Liverpool’s way back into the top four, and they are the only team in the race who can go on a winning run to get there.


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1:15

Can beating Crystal Palace kickstart Chelsea’s season?

Tom Hamilton reports on the mood from Chelsea after they beat Crystal Palace and unveil new man Mykhailo Mudryk.

CHELSEA

10th, 28 pts, +1 GD

The objective

Chelsea had a summer of turmoil due to a change of ownership, but they still had ambitions to challenge for the title, with a top-four finish the bare minimum. But after sacking Thomas Tuchel as manager in September and replacing him with Graham Potter, the bottom has fallen out of Chelsea’s season, so fourth spot is now the only objective, aside from unlikely Champions League success.

What do they need?

Some kind of stability. Potter has yet to settle into the job — poor results means he might not get the chance — while the conveyor belt of new signings needs to stop at some point to allow them all to integrate and enable the manager to find a way to fit them into a functioning team. Chelsea have also had significant injuries to key players, including Reece James and N’Golo Kante, so Potter has been unfortunate, but there is too much noise on and off the pitch right now. Sunday’s win against Crystal Palace was much-needed as it ended a woeful run of seven defeats in 10 games. But if Chelsea are to finish in the top four, they have to start a winning run of a similar length to get back in the race.

What can go wrong?

Potter has the backing of the Chelsea owners, but the former Brighton manager is walking a tightrope after such a dismal run. If Chelsea go out of the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16 and fail to close the gap on the top four, Potter might find that the support of the hierarchy ebbs away. But not much more can go wrong for Chelsea. They are probably one defeat away from being knocked out of the race for the top four, and if that happens, a huge squad of overpriced players could become unmanageable.

Where will they finish?

Sixth. Chelsea still have quality players, so at some point they will find some form. But it won’t be enough to finish in the top four.