One year after Chelsea and Liverpool gave the Premier League title to Manchester City, it’d be a bit foolish to consider anything in England as set in stone. Yet after today’s result at Anfield, there’s a sense that the four qualifiers for next year’s UEFA Champions League are set. With today’s 2- 1 win over rival Liverpool, fourth place Manchester United has opened a five-point gap on the pack, and the Red Devils are thought to be the most vulnerable of top four.
A number of other indicators hint Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and United may be England’s four best teams, the most obvious of which is goal difference. But with eight games left to play, the most important factor in England’s race for Europe may be the schedule. After all, if United’s eight remaining games are all against top-half teams, Liverpool might be considered a favorite for fourth, especially if it closes out the season against bottom dwellers.
Neither of those scenarios are true, though Manchester United does appear to have the slightly more difficult run in. Is its extra game against top-seven teams enough to offset a five-point gap? Probably not. Then again, there are more than two teams in this race.
Here’s what the run-in looks like for England’s second through seventh place teams:
City’s schedule could be worse, but with a trip to eighth place Swans among its “8th through 14th” games, it could also be a lot better. Half of the team’s remaining games are against the top eight, and three of those are on the road. That’s bad news for the team’s fledgling title hopes, though home games against Villa, QPR, and West Ham should ensure the Citizens don’t slide out of the top four.
Predicted finish: 76 points, third place.
Like City, Arsenal has four games against the top eight, but three of them are at home, with Chelsea likely to go full Mourinho and play for a mutually beneficial draw. With three games against relegation strugglers, Arsenal should not only have an easy enough path to make its trip to Old Trafford meaningless, it should be able to take second place, even though an FA Cup chase would see Arsenal ease off the gas pedal.
Predicted finish: 79 points, second place.
After convincing wins against Tottenham and at Liverpool, six points from City and Arsenal at Old Trafford seems possible. Trips to Everton and Crystal Palace represent potential banana skins, but thanks to home games against the two teams above them in the standings, the Red Devils may be able to avoid the Champions League’s playoff round.
Predicted finish: 76 points, fourth place.
Only two pushovers for Liverpool, and both of its games against superior opposition are on the road. Add to that the FA Cup, where the Reds are likely to play two more games, and the odds of catching one of City, Arsenal, and United look slim. Liverpool’s Champions League hopes may be less about its run-in than the form of the three teams above it.
Predicted finish: 68 points, sixth place.
This is generous. Half of Southampton’s games are against the bottom third of the league. Of its two against European contenders, one is at St. Marys, against the worst of the bunch. And that Manchester City game? It’s on the road, but it’s also on the last day of the season. If things go right for Ronald Koeman’s side, that will either be for fourth place or the Citizens will have wrapped up their Champions League spot (though I can’t stress that “If” enough).
Predicted finish: 70 points, fifth place.
Tottenham’s schedule isn’t that much worse than Southampton’s, though there are a few notable differences. Those three potential slips against “8th through 14th” teams? They’re all on the road, making an annoying draw or crippling upset more likely in each. And, of course, Spurs have to travel to St. Marys.
Predicted finish: 66 points, seventh place.
As for our predicted finishes, don’t put too much value in them. Instead, look at the actual schedules. Almost all of Arsenal’s tough games are at home, with those dangerous trips to lower table sides all happening against much lower sides.
On the other hand, Liverpool has to visit both Chelsea and Arsenal and only gets two games against the lower third. That may be enough to allow Southampton to claim the league’s automatic Europa spot.