It looks set to be a close-run thing in the race for fourth in the Premier League this season, with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea the three teams involved.
Some of us are old enough to remember when it was regularly these three occupying the top three spots in the table, but those days are no longer with the emergence of Manchester City as one of the richest clubs in the world, while Liverpool and Tottenham have got their act together in a very real way with some smart planning to punch above their financial weight.
It’s surely only between Liverpool, City and Spurs for the title now, but what about the final Champions League qualification spot?
It’s absolutely vital for all three clubs involved to be playing at Europe’s top table next season, but only one can get there via the league, even if there is another route through winning this season’s Champions League or Europa League.
But in terms of finishing fourth, here’s our look at the three sides involved and their respective prospects as we get into the final stages of the season…
Manchester United (H)
Crystal Palace (H)
Leicester City (A)
There’s this sense with Unai Emery’s Arsenal that we haven’t yet seen its full potential, and yet with every passing week the heir to Arsene Wenger’s throne, Emery is running out of time to really show he’s worth the patience.
Results have been better than performances for most of this season, with Arsenal’s football leaving plenty to be desired in comparison to even some of Wenger’s lesser sides.
Away from home, Arsenal have been particularly poor, and have a number of testing trips to come on their fixture list, with a North London Derby coming up, plus hard games at Wolves, Everton and Leicester.
Emery has the benefits of two of the best strikers in the country in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, while Mesut Ozil should also in theory be fully fit and fresh after playing so little this season; the only question is, will the Spaniard change his mind and involve the German playmaker more?
Overall, it’s hard not to bet on the Gunners *just* failing to make it in the race for fourth.
Crystal Palace (A)
West Ham (H)
Manchester City (H)
The in-form side at the moment, and the one with probably the best run of games coming up between now and May.
While there are obvious challenges ahead, Manchester United have already won convincingly at Arsenal under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in that 3-1 FA Cup triumph, and beaten Chelsea away in the next round.
There’s no reason United can’t beat those two again and gain serious advantage over them in the running for fourth, meaning their home game against title chasers City might not end up being that important after all, at least in terms of points.
One concern for the Red Devils right now is injuries, with players dropping like flies, but the fixture load will at least lighten up slightly soon enough as they’re almost certainly going out of the Champions League after losing 2-0 at home to PSG.
The Solskjaer effect is no blip now, that much is clear, and we’re backing the Norwegian to do what’s needed to get fourth and quite possibly land himself the permanent job at Old Trafford.
Brighton (H) – postponed
West Ham (H)
Manchester United (A)
Leicester City (A)
Of course, you can never rule out Chelsea with the talent and experience they’ve got, but it’s going pretty much as bad as it possibly could under Maurizio Sarri right now.
That could of course lead to a change in manager, with the Metro among the sources reporting that Chelsea’s players expect the Italian to be given his marching orders if they lose to Tottenham tonight.
The new manager effect could well improve Chelsea as it has United, in which case the race for fourth really would become a whole different ball game.
For now, however, it’s hard to see the Blues doing what’s needed against Spurs tonight, or indeed in some tricky away games at Liverpool and Man Utd later in the season.
Gonzalo Higuain is yet to get firing in the Premier League, but if the Argentine could find his shooting boots and become the striker this club has long needed, that would give them a great deal more hope.
For now, however, the style of football, the confidence of these players, and pretty much everything surrounding Chelsea looks all wrong, so we’d currently tip them to stay where they are in 6th place.