With just thirteen games remaining in the 2016/2017 Premier League season, the battle at the top of the table looks set to go down to the wire in one of the most exciting finishes in recent years.
England’s big guns have re-established themselves at the summit following Leicester’s remarkable title success last season, with the usual suspects putting themselves in a strong position to secure a Champions League spot. Up to six teams are firmly in a race in which every point could prove crucial, and although seventh-placed Everton are not mathematically out of the equation, it is difficult to see Ronald Koeman’s men bridging the gap to the top four which currently stands at nine points.
Four points is all that separates Manchester City in second and their fierce rivals United in sixth, and although league leaders Chelsea are overwhelming favourites with Betway to lift the title that appears theirs to lose, it leaves three places open for their closest challengers to fight over. Antonio Conte deserves huge credit for the work he has done at Stamford Bridge, with the former Juventus and Italy manager transforming a team that played well within themselves last season into one that look almost unstoppable. Having the joint-best defensive record, along with scoring just two less than Arsenal and Liverpool who have both scored fifty-four to date, are true indications of why Chelsea would be deserved champions; Conte has injected real hunger and desire throughout the team, with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa amongst those that have been transformed under a charismatic manager who knows how to form winning sides. They have a commanding eight-point lead over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and although you can never say never in football, the fact they have lost just one of their last nineteen Premier League fixtures (winning sixteen in the process) would suggest that it would take a dramatic drop in form for Chelsea to throw all their hard work away.
There is a growing acceptance that Chelsea have put themselves in pole position to be crowned champions, but as five into three does not go, the battle for a top four finish will undoubtedly see two of England’s biggest clubs miss out. Betway believe that Manchester City have best odds to be to claim one of the vacant spots, with Guardiola starting to find his feet into the Premier League and get his team firing on all cylinders. Their enthralling 5-3 win in the Champions League against Monaco reflects the good and bad side of Manchester City – superb going forward, but defensively vulnerable. Vincent Kompany’s on-going injury nightmare has left them devoid of an influential leader at the back, but any team that has Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling amongst their attacking options are likely to outscore any opponent. Taking the Kevin Keegan approach to the Premier League may be the way forward for Guardiola and Manchester City, and if they can extend their current run of three straight wins and discover an element of consistency, then the Citizens will finish in the top four.
The same could be said for Tottenham who have recently endured a slight dip in form that has left people wondering if they will be one of the sides to miss out. Securing back-to-back top four finishes would unquestionably illustrate the progress made at White Hart Lane under Mauricio Pochettino, but their ability to let complacency set in and drop points at crucial times of the season could come back to haunt them. Tottenham were ultimately second best against Liverpool in their recent 2-0 defeat at Anfield – a result which saw their local rivals Arsenal go level on points after Arsene Wenger’s side picked up a much needed win at home against Hull by the same scoreline. Consistency has evaded both North London clubs in recent months, with Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat at Chelsea not only damaging their title chances, but also providing further proof of their inability to pick up results against the big teams. Wenger often finds a way of ensuring that Arsenal finish in the top four, as they have done in every season since he arrived at the club in 1996, but with Liverpool and Manchester United right behind them, they, and Tottenham, will need to start winning games before their hopes of Champions League football disappears.
Beating Tottenham could be the springboard for Liverpool to resurrect their fading hopes of finishing in the top four and enjoy a strong finish to the campaign. The result was their first win in six matches, with Jurgen Klopp’s side enduring a real dip in form at the worst possible time; Liverpool still find themselves just one point behind Arsenal and Tottenham, but recent defeats against Swansea and Hull could prove to be damaging. Sadio Mane’s return from African Cup of Nations duty with Senegal could be the turning point in Liverpool’s season, with his quality and sheer sorely missed as Klopp’s team won just one game in his absence – a 1-0 victory at Plymouth in the FA Cup.
As the in-form team in the Premier League, Manchester United pose the greatest danger to those further up the table. It seems remarkable that, despite being unbeaten in their last sixteen Premier League fixtures (nine wins, seven draws), Jose Mourinho’s side have remained outside of the top four. There can be no question that Manchester United have found their groove at just the right time, and although some may argue that their chances of a top four finish would be improved if they turned more draws into wins, Mourinho’s men look on course to leapfrog their closest rivals. Their hopes ultimately rest on Zlatan Ibrahimovic who cannot stop scoring, and with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba starting to pull the strings in midfield, Manchester United should force their way into the top four in what promises to be a wonderful battle at the top of the table.