With the Premier League taking a well-deserved breather as its teams prepare for the home straight of the domestic season, there is still so much to play for. The international break arrives at a point where so many outcomes can still go down to the wire. The title looks like being decided in a thrilling two-horse race, it’s advantage Arsenal in a heated battle for the top four while the fight against the drop is far from over.
Here’s The Sportsman’s state of play for the Premier League, as we head into a nail-biting final few weeks.
The Title Race
It’s a straight shootout at the top of the table, as Manchester City look to defend their trophy from Liverpool’s grasp. Between them, these sides have worn the crown for the last four seasons. The 2021-22 season may produce their closest battle yet.
COVID-19 necessitated some match postponements earlier in the season, meaning Premier League teams differ wildly in how many games they’ve played. The title race is thankfully unencumbered by this, as both City and Liverpool have played 29 games. The Cityzens are currently on 50 points, with the Reds just a single point behind.
Thrillingly, the two teams will meet at the Etihad on 10th April in a game that could define their season. Beyond that box office encounter, Liverpool play Manchester United the week after with Tottenham Hotspur and a resurgent Newcastle United still to play. City’s fixtures are kinder, with the potential banana skins of Newcastle and West Ham United lying in wait. That Etihad fixture certainly feels more must-win for Liverpool than it does for City, though it is doubtful that Pep Guardiola sees it as anything less than a mandatory three points.
The top two are virtually set in stone, with even Chelsea’s game in hand on Liverpool failing to convince many that Thomas Tuchel’s side can overcome a ten-point gap. The west London club also look relatively secure in third, but it is within the battle below them where you will find the intrigue.
Six points separate fourth-placed Arsenal and seventh-placed West Ham. In between, traditional Big Six-ers Manchester United and Tottenham remain in the fight. A rich vein of form for Arsenal in recent weeks has seen them race to the front of queue, but it remains to be seen whether a loss to Liverpool before the international break will halt their rise.
Meanwhile, the clouds have gathered over Old Trafford. If Ralf Rangnick was not a stop-gap interim appointment he might have been sacked already, such is the depth of the malaise at United. Still, theirs is a squad laden with talent. If illustrious individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford can approach something like a cohesive union in the final few weeks then they can reach the top four. It is a fading dream though, with Arsenal already four-points clear of them with a game in hand.
Spurs are a complicated beast. At times, Antonio Conte has his side purring like a freshly-tuned Porsche. At others, they’ve spluttered and coughed like Del Boy and Rodney’s fading Reliant Robin. Their recent form demonstrates how intermittently the Italian gets a tune out of this most confusing side. Their last six game feature wins over upwardly-mobile West Ham and Champions Manchester City. That same stretch also features defeats to 19th-placed Burnley and a decaying Manchester United. Apart from Liverpool, Spurs have a relatively straightforward run-in. But how they’ll cope with it is anyone’s guess.
West Ham are the rank outsiders here, and with six points to make up having played two games more than Arsenal it looks a bridge too far. If there is still something to play for by then, their 1st May clash with the Gunners could be decisive. But with Chelsea and City to play either side of it, Moyes’ Hammers might have to wait a little longer for Champions League football.
At Christmas, Newcastle’s fate looked cut and dry. The Magpies had won just one of their 18 games, and their fans were bracing themselves for enduring the first full season since their takeover in the Championship. Six wins, three draws and just two losses later and Eddie Howe’s men are practically safe. However, they aren’t the only historically big club to be dragged into the relegation battle this season.
Everton have already sacked a manager, Rafael Benitez, in their desperation to dodge the drop. A big name has replaced him in the shape of former Chelsea boss Frank Lampard, and with him came high-profile signings like Dele Alli and Donny van de Beek. Progress has been slow, but a dramatic late win over Newcastle last time out has brightened the picture at Goodison Park. The Toffees have three games in hand on Leeds in 16th, but will need to take advantage with tricky ties against Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to come.
Burnley similarly have games in hand on some of their rivals, with their 27 being two less than Watford immediately above them. Survival will still be a tremendous task for Sean Dyche’s men. The visit of Man City immediately following the international break will do little to calm nerves, and the following games against Norwich City and Everton will be vital.
Watford are running out of games to get it done, and will be relying on an Everton or Leeds collapse at this point. Norwich City look set to honour their longtime role of the league’s yo-yo club as they sit eight points adrift of safety.
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