ASSUMING Chelsea have done enough to secure Champions League football next term and that a top four spot is a bridge too far for Wolves, then we return from international action with a quartet of teams in the reckoning to compete against the continent’s elite in 2022/23.
With a three-point advantage over their nearest challenger and with a game in hand, Arsenal should be considered favourites to secure the hallowed final qualifying spot but let’s not forget what happened at this stage of the season last year. Then, Leicester City looked nailed-on to finish top four, being an expansive ten points ahead of Liverpool with nine to play, only for the Foxes to cramp up badly on the home straight. It was a dramatic capitulation that sadly has become something of a hallmark of Brendan Rodgers’ teams.
It is hard to imagine the Gunners succumbing to such a late decline – or for that matter, Chelsea – and what is an especially pertinent point here is that none from Tottenham, Manchester United or West Ham look capable at present of embarking on a sustained unbeaten streak as Liverpool did. Still, it’s happened before and indeed it happened the campaign prior too. Yup, that would be Leicester imploding again.
Simply put, Mikel Arteta’s side should be backed to ultimately top this developing mini-league because they have the fewest structural problems of the quartet and crucially they have the points on the board, but then the remaining fixtures of all concerned are analyzed and doubts do begin to nag.
Arsenal have to play all three of their main rivals before the season is out – two of them away, to the Hammers and Spurs – and frankly, their record against the bigger sides this term is little to write home about. The Gunners have won just one of their seven clashes against a fellow top sixer in 2021/22, losing the rest and this week they must go south of the river to face a Crystal Palace collective who are positively flying of late. A Monday night fixture under the Selhurst Park lights, against three players who have just received international recognition and will be desperate to show why; against a team that so recently nullified Manchester City with a bit to spare. That’s a tough test for sure.
🗣Alexandre Lacazette:”We’re focused on being in the top four. We want to get the team into the Champions League next season. We work for it all week, and at the moment, it’s working. We want to continue like this, working hard every day to play well at the weekend.” 🙏#Arsenal pic.twitter.com/mlsHWlMUpH
— Arsenal News Channel (@Arsenalnewschan) March 30, 2022
It is Manchester United who boast the best return against the Premier League’s elite this season but before they seek to extend on that they resume domestic football with three winnable games on the immediate horizon, starting with Leicester at Old Trafford late Saturday afternoon.
The Foxes have won their last three encounters with the Reds but on each occasion they had Jamie Vardy pulling the opposition defence misshapen and with the 35-year-old currently injured it’s telling how much they miss his ferocity – as much as his goals – up front. In the league games he’s featured this term, Leicester have picked up 1.5 points-per-game. That plummets to 0.8 when he’s been unavailable.
Staying with the injury angle, United’s fortunes greatly contrast, with Luke Shaw, Raphael Varane, and Paul Pogba all expected to be back giving Ralf Rangnick better options but perhaps the player to look out for at the weekend is the ever-improving Jadon Sancho who will have a fire in his belly from his England omission.
For United it’s crunch-time, with no further allowances for mishap or passivity such is their deficit to the Gunners. They need maximum points from Leicester, Everton (a) and Norwich (h) or all the marquee match-ups that come next – including a trip to the Emirates in late April – will have them merely cast as onlookers.
Of the four it is Spurs who have the easiest run-in though to suggest so lacks context when you factor in that a third of their remaining games are against sides battling to avoid the drop. Even so, Antonio Conte’s side are in surprisingly good shape considering they have lost five of their last ten and the positive slant is they are razor-sharp up top right now, scoring 12 of their last 20 shots on target.
Son Heung-min has converted 77% of his goals on home soil this season while crucially Harry Kane is getting back to his prolific best, scoring seven in seven. It’s hardly a niche shout that Spurs will rely hugely on this pair as they rev up for another to four push and the duo might be sufficient so long as Tottenham’s recent trait for keeping clean sheets continues.
Lastly, there is West Ham who have it all to do after losing at Spurs going into the break meaning they could be 12 points adrift and realistically out of the running if Arsenal win their games in hand.
An impressive campaign for David Moyes’ men now rests on recovering from that seismic set-back straight away at home to an Everton side mired in serious crisis who last won on their travels way back in August, but the Hammers must do so without Jarrod Bowen who has directly been involved in over a third of their league goals.
Bowen’s absence feeds into a shortcoming that will ultimately cost the Hammers their dream of attaining top four, namely a paucity of strength in depth that was not rectified during the January transfer window. Only three other teams have used fewer players than West Ham this term and with vital games coming thick and fast across April it’s feasible that hamstring pulls and groin sprains will limit aspirations that at one point were sky high.