Five into one - The key battles in the race for a Champions League place in the Premier League
With the top three places virtually secure, the race for the final Champions League qualification spot in the Premier League is heating up with Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Wolves all locked in battle. Ibrahim Mustapha looks at the key key games which could decide which team makes the top four.
Arteta: 'It puts us a little bit closer' to top four after late drama earns 2-1 win over Wolves
Manchester United replaced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with Ralf Rangnick earlier in the season and while results have picked up, performances are still very much a concern. It’s now a case of whether they will improve in the run in or regress to the mean.
West Ham flew out of the traps this season but are seemingly running out of steam as the season goes on, while Arsenal’s roller-coaster campaign may look to be on an upward curve at present but you worry a drop is never far away.
Spurs looked primed to take the top four spot after a great start under Antonio Conte, coupled with a number of winnable games in hand on their rivals. However, their form is currently in the toilet and there even doubts over whether the Italian will stick around.
Wolves look like the dark horses in the race and in truth, the most unlikely but recent results mean they certainly can’t be discounted.
It is more than likely taking points off each other could be decisive in who sneaks into the top four and there are a number of key games between the contenders between now and the end of the season.
West Ham v Wolves – 27 Feb
One league win in five has seen West Ham go from pace-setters to a real danger of falling away.
Momentum is key and David Moyes’s side look like they have none right now, despite the form of Jerrod Bowen.
On the other hand, should Wolves' bounce back from their Arsenal setback on their second trip to London in a matter of days, they start could build their own momentum once more to chase down the sides ahead of them.
Joao Moutinho celebrates scoring for Wolves against Manchester United
Image credit: Getty Images
Manchester United v Tottenham – 12 Mar
Spurs’ most recent trip to Manchester was of course a special one but at present it’s the only bright spot in a period of dark mediocrity.
At one point Tottenham had enough games in hand on their rivals they could have theoretically jumped up to third! However, their freefall has seen them now forced to play catch-up, while in contrast, United have been steadily picking up points, even if the performances haven’t followed.
Remarkably, after turbulent seasons, both teams will have different managers in the dugout from their earlier meeting just months before.
This north v east London derby is rarely without incident and it is likely the loser of this match might find themselves putting their Champions League plans on hold for the next 12 months.
That’s not to say there will be anything guaranteed for the winner but given the form of both sides since the turn of the year, it’s likely that by mid-March, neither will able to afford to drop many more points – least of all against a rival for the top four.
Arsenal v Manchester United – 23 April
The state of both sides will be interesting by the time they meet at the Emirates.
As it stands, they look the two most likely to secure that spot but a lot could change in the coming weeks.
Manchester United’s Champions League commitments could extend into the spring while Mikel Arteta will hope his small squad will not be too stretched albeit with only league matches to focus on.
The game is one that attracts attention at the best of times but as a potential shoot-out for a top four place, it becomes even spicier.
Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United
Image credit: Getty Images
West Ham v Arsenal – 30 April
The Gunners follow up the United game with an immediate trip to the London Stadium.
Whether they will be building on a good result or bouncing back from a bad one will certainly impact how they approach the game.
Both sides may simply be battling to keep any sort of European hopes alive by this stage.
Tottenham v Arsenal – TBC
A potential wildcard as the game is still yet to be rescheduled.
Arsenal will want to catch Tottenham while they are still in poor form but by the time they do head up the road, Spurs could well be back on track.
Arsenal’s poor recent record away from home against other ‘big six’ sides will be of some concern so they will likely look to have points on the board from elsewhere before facing their neighbours.
In addition, Spurs are still angry about the fact their hated rivals were able to get the originally scheduled fixture postponed, so as well as everything else, there is added incentive to win the game.