Friday, March 26, 2021

The Fight for Europe: Top Half of The Premier League Table

As the Premier League pauses for the international break, it is worth looking to see how the fight for European qualification stands and how teams in the top half of the table are faring as the league and cup seasons prepare to enter the final stretch.


Manchester City – Secure in their league title chase with a present 14-point advantage over Manchester United, the question for Manchester City is whether it can accomplish a “quadruple” of titles. The Citizens face Spurs in the final of the League Cup on April 25th, after squaring off against Chelsea in a difficult FA Cup semifinal on April 17th. In the Champions League, Manchester City faces Borussia Dortmund in a first leg match on April 6th with a semifinal looming against the winner of a Bayern Munich and PSG tie. Goalkeeper Ederson has posted a Premier League leading 16 clean sheets for the Citizens in front of the solid center back combination of Reuben Dias and John Stones. Offensively, Ilkay Gundogan has progressed from a holding defensive midfielder role to lead the team with 16 goals across all competitions.

Manchester United – With the Red Devils being highly unlikely to catch Manchester City and the club’s qualification for next year’s Champions league seemingly secure (currently eight points safe) the focus for supporters may be the Europa League where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer attempts to win his first silverware. An FA Cup elimination against Leicester was particularly disheartening for fans who might well riot in the streets if the Red Devils do not advance from their Europa League quarterfinal tie versus Granada. The progress under Solskjaer in the league is clear but the team still shows vulnerability in key matches. There is perhaps too much reliance on midfielder Bruno Fernandes and the defense can be susceptible to pacier squads.

Leicester –  Leicester was impressive in booting Manchester United from the FA Cup and a winnable match against Southampton awaits the Foxes in the FA Cup semi-final.

In the league, the third place Foxes would seem secure in their top four standing as they currently hold a seven-point advantage over fifth place West Ham. The Foxes will be wary, however, of repeating their 2019/20 season stumble when Leicester lost 3 of its final 4 matches to tumble from Champions League qualification. This season’s final match against Spurs could be meaningful for both clubs. The emergence of Kelechi Iheanacho as a top scoring threat and improved play from midfielder Youri Tielemans has given Leicester a boost in recent weeks.

Chelsea  – Chelsea is yet to lose in 14 matches under Manager Thomas Tuchel who has taken  the Blues from ninth position at the time of his hiring into the top four. The club also impressed in a 3-0 aggregate defeat of Atletico Madrid in their recent Champions League tie. Chelsea has been getting results from a suffocating defense which has conceded just two goals under Tuchel while the Chelsea attack, populated with high priced talent, has had less success but holds promise for the future.  A match against fifth place West Ham on April 24th will be impactful toward finishing in the top four. A difficult FA Cup seminal match against Manchester City awaits while Chelsea’s resurgence also poses some interesting Champions League possibilities. Chelsea face Porto in the Champions League quarterfinals and would potentially advance to meet one of two struggling giants, Liverpool or Real Madrid, in the semifinals.

West Ham  – European qualification would be a magnificent and clearly unexpected accomplishment for the Hammers, who finished the 2019/20 season just five points clear of relegation. Manager David Moyes has the Hammers playing with both discipline and drive and the loan acquisition of Jesse Lingard from Manchester United has worked brilliantly for the former Red Devils Manager. West Ham still need to finish the job, however. The more difficult league tasks ahead involve home matches against Leicester, Chelsea, and Everton.  Qualifying for Europe will raise interesting offseason questions in east London. Lingard is not expected to return for the team and the retention of Declan Rice will be critical for future success. Added depth and a true striker would also improve the Hammers.

Tottenham Hotspur –  Spurs fans would grudgingly have to concede that a League Cup trophy  and top four finish would mean success from a tumultuous season where fan dissatisfaction peaked with the recent embarrassing collapse versus Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League, which followed a week earlier loss in the north London derby to Arsenal. Following the break, the club enters a final stretch of winnable games where they will face only two clubs with better records. Manchester United visits Spurs on April 11th and Spurs go to Leicester on the final day of season in a match which could determine a Champion’s League slot.  The quality of play in the final weeks, for a club which led the table as recently as mid-December, could impact the futures with the club of Manager Jose Mourinho and star Harry Kane.

Liverpool – An exceptionally difficult season for Liverpool sees the defending league champions two points behind sixth place Spurs for the final Europa League position in the table. While injuries to their defensive corps derailed Liverpool early in the season, questions exist with respect to the continued effectiveness of their high pressing philosophy, cohesiveness of their front three and adequacy of squad depth. Liverpool has remarkably lost six of their eight league matches. A favorable run-in should help their aspirations for European competition next year as Liverpool face only one club, Manchester United, currently above them in the table for the balance of the season. The Reds have looked a much better side in Champions League competition as they approach a quarterfinal showdown against Real Madrid in April.

Everton  – The credibility of the Carlo Ancelotti project in Everton would be greatly enhanced if the Toffees can secure a place in Europe for next season.  Striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin has had a breakout season for the club with 14 league goals. Excitement for the future is growing with this week’s government approval for a new Everton stadium.

The Toffees have stumbled of late, however, losing two straight matches and four of their last six.  Currently level on points with seventh place Liverpool, the Toffees should benefit from a run-in of ten games which includes only two top six opponents. Everton also has a match in hand versus the clubs currently above them in the table.  An April 17th visit from Spurs looms large while the season ends with a trip by the Toffees to Manchester City.

Arsenal  –  Wildly inconsistent Arsenal is six points removed from Europa League table qualification. Worse yet, the long-term future remains unclear. Martin Odegaard has been the recent subject of enthusiastic talk and praise from supporters but there is no indication that Real Madrid will be willing to part with the young midfielder following his one-year loan to the Gunners. Arsenal leading scorer Alexandre Lacazette remains the subject of transfer rumors while Pierre Emerick Aubameyang has underperformed in the first year of his massive contract.  Still, the Gunners remain alive in this year’s Europa competition and face only three teams currently above them in the table during the final nine games of Arsenal’s season.

Aston Villa  – Early season promise has paled in recent weeks for Aston Villa which has shown little creative spark and miniscule goal production during the prolonged injury absence of captain Jack Grealish.  The club is very solid defensively but lacks offensive creativity and production.  Only Manchester City’s Ederson has more than the 14 clean sheets of Aston Villa Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. Unfortunately, a formidable early season attack has all but disappeared. The club scored 28 goals in its first 14 matches versus only 11 goals in their last 14 contests. Aston Villa has scored but two goals in their last five matches. Seven of ten remaining matches are versus clubs above the Villans in the table. 

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