The race for the league title has looked all but done for quite a while but the battle for the remaining three Champions League spots continues to be unpredictable with various dips and rises in form putting the bookmakers through their paces. Tottenham’s triumph in the North London derby has firmly put them back in the race and possibly condemned Arsenal to second billing on Thursday nights in the Europa League for another season. With Chelsea looking frail under a visibly stressed Antonio Conte and Liverpool looking slightly worse for wear in their dystopian, post-Coutinho world, both Tottenham and Manchester United will be buoyed by the cracks that are forming.
However, with five fixtures amongst the five teams positioned 2nd-6th still yet to come, as well as a game against league leaders Manchester City to look forward to for all these teams except Liverpool, a lot could change over the remaining 11 games. There is also the return of the Champions League itself which could play a decisive role in respective league forms. Beyond the commonly-discussed problem of late season fatigue, expectations for survival in the competition could affect how well each team does in the league.
Chelsea are expected to fall at the hands of Barcelona and Tottenham’s tussle in Turin against Juventus is difficult to call. It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if both Tottenham and Chelsea failed to make it through the first knockout stage. Liverpool are expected to beat Porto and Manchester United should dispose of Sevilla. Early exits for Chelsea and Tottenham will benefit their league form whilst Liverpool and United will be hindered by midweek games in Europe.
Arsenal, who are lagging in 6th, will need to try and win the Europa League in the hopes of making the Champions League through the backdoor but this will surely further disrupt their already worrying league form. There is also Manchester City to consider. Arguably Europe’s in form team, they could realistically win the Champions League. If they go deep into the tournament, fixtures against the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham could be viewed as unimportant considering their vast advantage in the league already, opening up opportunities for unexpected victories.
As well as Tottenham’s recent resurgence, much emphasis will lie on the future of Chelsea, or more specifically, Antonio Conte. With two legs against Barcelona and games against both Manchester teams in the space of a month, depending on how Chelsea fare will probably decide Conte’s employment status going into March. Past managerial sackings at Chelsea have normally reignited their form which could prove crucial with Tottenham visiting in March. It could also make the Liverpool fixture on the penultimate weekend more unpredictable than it already is.
With the points buffer and the acquisition of Alexis Sanchez, United look best placed to secure second. Liverpool, with a midfield lacking creativity, look vulnerable at the moment but in a better place than Chelsea. Tottenham have the most momentum going into the final stages but Arsenal could still prove a disruptive force in fixtures against the teams above them once new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mhkitaryan settle. Liverpool still clearly have defensive frailties to contend with but the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk could improve them defensively going into the final games.
Predictions for 2nd-6th: Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal.