Who will win the race for Champions League football?
As the football season rolls on towards spring, teams inevitably begin to look ahead to the end of the season and beyond. Chelsea have already secured the Capital One Cup and hold a comfortable lead in the Premier League, but behind them, the race for the remaining Champions League spots is as hot as ever. Manchester City look safe in second place, but behind them, five teams are in the hunt for the coveted third and fourth spots. Three will fall short and spend 2015/16 playing on Thursday nights in the Europa League, but for two, the pinnacle of European football awaits. Here is how these teams are shaping up for the run in:
Position: 3rd Pts: 51
Once again, Arsenal’s season seems to be following a familiar pattern. Their final eleven games in the Premier League will be spent securing Champions League football for yet another season, just as their challenge in Europe seems to be spluttering to its perennial halt in the round of 16.
Arsenal are one of the form teams in the division, having lost just twice in the league since the turn of the year, suffering defeats at the hand of Southampton and local rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Other than these blips, Arsenal have been brilliant in 2015, typified in their surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, whilst swatting aside teams from the lower reaches of the Premier League.
The Gunners’ improvement in form is no surprise when considering that some of their best players have returned from injury over the last few weeks. Record signing Mesut Özil has looked rejuvenated since his return to the side and Olivier Giroud has been in fantastic form since recovering from a broken ankle in December. Furthermore, Theo Walcott should be returning to full fitness soon following a serious knee injury, which will add another dimension to Arsenal’s attack for the final few games of the season.
The absence of these players earlier in the season may actually prove to help Arsenal in the run in. Santi Carzorla now looks to be one of the league’s best central midfielders, whilst the addition of Francis Coquelin to the side has given Arsenal more steel and bite in midfield. Furthermore, the addition of Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal looks to have helped sort out some of Arsenal’s problems in central defence, which has too often been undone Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace. All in all, they look a much better side than they did earlier in the season.
Their run in is also favourable, having faced many of the teams around them since the turn of the year. They still have Liverpool and Chelsea to face at the Emirates, and face a crunch match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend of the season, but they should win the majority of their other fixtures, especially when they have players of the quality of Alexis Sanchez. The defeat to Monaco in the Champions League raises concerns about their vulnerability, but they look favourites to take third spot and secure Champions League football for an eighteenth successive year.
Position: 4th Pts: 50
Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge at Old Trafford has been a strange one. After a good run in the Autumn, the Red Devils have spent most of the season in the top 4 of the league, despite struggling to impress most onlookers. Some abject performances and strange tactical decisions have left United just five points better off than they were under the tragic regime of David Moyes, yet they still harbour strong hopes of returning to Europe’s top table.
Manchester United’s strong league position has been built on the back of their ability to overcome some of the league’s weaker clubs at home. Comfortable wins over teams such as QPR, Burnley and Hull City has seen them accumulate a large number of points despite their obvious shortcomings. Their stand out results of the season are a 3-0 home win against an out of form Liverpool, where the scoreline flattered them dramatically, and an impressive 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium.
It is possible to argue that United’s lofty league position has been as a result of having great players, rather than a great team. Too often they have benefited from the outstanding goalkeeping of David de Gea, who is probably the best in the world right now in his position, and has kept Manchester United in countless games with some brilliant saves, allowing United to do the bare minimum up top to win games, even resorting to lumping the ball up to Marouane Fellaini.
The struggles that face Manchester United for the rest of the season seem to be their fixture list, and their manager. In their remaining eleven games, the Red Devils face six of the top seven, all of whom they look like they will struggle against. Furthermore, with van Gaal seemingly not knowing his best team, and stubbornly persisting to play players out of position, such as Rooney in central midfield and record signing Angel di Maria, who is starting to look a shadow of the man at Real Madrid last season, up front, United seem to lack cohesion all over the pitch. They are impossible to count out due to the quality of the individuals in their line-up, but overall, they look a poor outfit. With tough fixtures to come, they may have to settle for the Europa League next season.
Position: 6th Pts:48
When Liverpool fell to a crushing 3-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester United in December, it looked the end of any hope of European football for next season for the Merseyside giants. Out of the Champions League just a few days before and languishing in mid-table, it seemed the fire had gone out and last year’s runners up were set for a torrid season.
Fast forward 10 weeks and Liverpool are suddenly on the brink of the top 4 after an eleven game unbeaten run. Whilst the defeat at Old Trafford looked to be disastrous on paper, it actually heralded in the start of a fresh new team that is now tearing up the Premier League. The switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation by Brendan Rodgers allowed Liverpool to integrate all of their pacey, young, attacking players, whilst offering more support for a creaking defence. The system pushed Raheem Sterling up front, finally adding the speed to get behind defences that Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert failed to provide, allowing space for Liverpool’s attacking midfielders Adam Lallana and the astoundingly talented Philippe Coutinho.
Furthermore, Liverpool’s signings seemed to have started to bed in; Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno add width and pace to the Reds’ formation, whereas Emre Can has been a revelation on the right of a much more solid back three. In the absence of Steven Gerrard and Lucas, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen also seemed to have formed a solid but forward thinking base to attack from, allowing Liverpool to pour forward whilst still feeling secure at the back. In addition, Can, Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, who whilst gangly and awkward, is probably the best out and out defender at the club, have stopped leaking so many goals as Liverpool now look confident at the back.
Liverpool are the form team in the league, much like they were at this stage last season, and wins against Spurs, Southampton and Manchester City in the last few weeks has shown they can beat anyone right now. They still have to travel to the Emirates and Stamford Bridge, as well as facing Manchester United at Anfield, but right now, they will not be scared of any of them. Their season has turned around, and they look a solid bet to return to the Champions League for a second season.
Position: 5th Pts: 49
At the start of the season, it looked highly improbable that Southampton would be discussed for a European spot come March, but after a blistering start under new manager Ronald Koeman, that is exactly what everyone is doing.
Their summer clear out meant that many predicted relegation for the Saints, but new signings Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadic looked to have added a freshness to Southampton’s attack, whilst their incredibly stingy defence stopped teams from scoring against them, making them a frightening prospect.
However, the results, and the goals have dried up recently for Southampton, casting doubt over their European credentials. Pellè is struggling in front of goal, and they are sometimes far too laboured when it comes to creating opportunities. In order to improve and get back towards the top 4, they need to start using the pace of players like Eljero Elia and Sadio Mané to get in behind teams and cause them problems.
With just one goal in their last 5 matches, it is clear where Southampton’s problems lie, but should they sort that out, the strong spine of their team should allow them to start winning games again. They possess the meanest defence in the league, and have perhaps the best central midfield pairing of any Premier League team in the shape of the excellent Schneiderlin and Wanyama. They will not lose may games over the rest of the season, but whether their challenge continues depends on how whether they can significantly add to the 38 goals they have mustered this season. It would be a monumental achievement for the Saints to make the top 4, and one they will probably miss out on.
Position: 7th Pts: 44 (after 26 games)
It has been a strange season for Spurs. Early on they looked weak and lightweight, and suffered a rather poor start under Mauricio Pochettino. However, Tottenham started to repeatedly snatch late winners from games, allowing them to move up the table. Whilst many would put this down to luck, the manner of their victories were as a result of Pochettino’s training methods, turning Tottenham into a much stronger, fitter team, allowing them to climb the league table as well as reach the Capital One Cup final.
The discovery of Harry Kane has also contributed massively to Tottenham’s rise. Emmanuel Adebayor is far too lazy to fit into a Pochettino team, and Roberto Soldado has never really settled in England. Kane on the other hand is made for the Premier League. Strong, quick and lethal in front of goal, he is almost certain to win his first England cap come the end of the month, after 24 goals in a stellar breakthrough season.
Kane is not the only player impressing, as Christian Eriksen has continued to shine after an impressive début season in 2013/14. Pochettino has managed to stamp his style on Spurs, and looks to have found a preferred line up. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, whilst limited players, work perfectly for Pochettino, breaking up play and recycling the ball for the attacking players Townsend, Chadli and Eriksen. The former Southampton manager has found the players to fit his system and Tottenham are thriving because of it.
However, after a Europa League campaign and a run to the League Cup final, Tottenham have already played more games than any other team in the Premier League this season. They do have a deep squad to deal with this, but there are questions over the quality of some of the fringe players should Eriksen or Kane sustain an injury or loss of form. They look a much stronger outfit now than under Villas-Boas or Sherwood, but all in all, with their long season, Spurs will probably fall just short of the Champions League, yet again.