With 17 fixtures remaining in the 2014-15 Barclays Premier League, the race for the 3rd and 4th Champions League places is hotter than the sun. With seven points seperating third from eighth, who from those six teams will still be in the mix come May?
3. Southampton (39 points)
Ronald Koeman’s men are now higher up the Premier League table than each and every player (and manager) that left The Saints in the summer for pastures more profitable.
What the Dutchman is doing at St. Mary’s defies belief: he’s quickly integrated a host of new signings; he’s drawing the most out of players like Jose Fonte who were playing in League One not so long ago, and he’s now turned around their long-expected December slump - when they dropped out of the Top Four last year, and were five points behind 3rd place United - with 10 points from 12 including a draw against Chelsea and wins against Arsenal and the aforementioned United.
Southampton are now 3rd and, with a fixture list that doesn’t see them face another team currently in the top 5 until mid March, could stay there for some time yet. Perhaps the only real threat to Southampton’s season is the stability of Luis Enrique’s tenure as Barcelona manager, as Koeman has been romored to replace him should he be sacked.
4. Man United (37 points)
You’re no doubt fully aware by now that, with 37 points after 21 games following their loss to Southampton, Louis van Gaal’s record as Manchester United manager is identical to that of David Moyes last season. Oh, and he’s spent $190m more on transfers than his predecessor.
But how many United supporters are as unhappy now as they were this time last year? We suspect relatively few. However indifferent some of their performances have been, at least van Gaal looks the part. I mean, you’re unlikely to see the big Dutchman punching the air like a raving lunatic upon scoring an equalizer against Fulham at home, are you? What's more, at this time last year, under Moyes, United were 7th, five points off fourth place.
It’s a preposterous thing to say about such an expensively acquired attacking line, but United desperately need pace up top: Di Maria aside, they have nobody able to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye, and that lack of zip makes it extremely difficult to break down well-drilled defensive sides such as Southampton or Aston Villa. While he may be a three time Ballon D’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo’s greatest benefit to United was arguably as a flat-track bully: steamrollering lesser opposition with his pace and power before they had a chance to reorganise defensively.
It sounds ludicrous, but perhaps United really do need to spend another wad of cash on Gareth Bale if they want to reach the domestic and European summit once again. European football for next season is currently far from secure.
5. Arsenal (36 points)
The18 – and pretty much everyone else on the planet – has criticised Arsene Wenger for his (lack of) transfer activity over the last few years, not least his failure to sign defensive reinforcements last summer. So let’s give credit where it’s due: Alexis Sanchez must be considered the signing of the season so far. The Chilean has scored or created 19 of Arsenal’s 36 Premier League goals this season (53%), including all three against Stoke on Sunday.
They’ll need to keep him fit and healthy - never a straightforward task at Arsenal - if they want to finish in their regular fourth place berth.
6. Tottenham Hotspur (34 points)
One of the less violent lines from Roy Keane’s Biography was the revelation that Sir Alex Ferguson’s pre-match team talk before a United visit to White Hart Lane was simply: “Lads, it’s Tottenham”.
The lack of mental fortitude to which Keane and Ferguson refer was one of the reasons Spurs brought in Mauricio Pochettino as manager. And the Argentine has certainly improved what was historically a flaky team: no side has earned more points from losing positions this season than Tottenham.
But their enduring ability – as demonstrated against Crystal Palace this weekend – to drop a clanger against lower league teams they should be beating continues to dent their chances of European qualification. Spurs would be level on points with Man United in 4th if they’d won at the weekend; as things stand they’re 6th, two points behind Arsenal.
7. West Ham (33 points)
Flying high in fourth before Christmas, West Ham have had an inevitable tumble down the table. With just two points from a possible 12, Diafra Sakho injured (in theory, at least) and games against Liverpool, Man United, Southampton and Spurs coming in quick succession, the next few weeks could make or break The Hammers' season.
8. Liverpool (32 points)
While perhaps not quite as vital as Alexis to Arsenal, Raheem Sterling undoubtedly represents the future of Liverpool. Assuming he signs a new contract, that is.
With the likes of Real Madrid reported to be circling (because they absolutely need another pacey winger, right?), Liverpool are eager to tie their star man down beyond his current contract, which ends in 2017.
It’s emerged in the last day or so that Sterling has sought assurances that Brendan Rodgers won’t be sacked before he signs a new deal. Now, in light of the young forward’s recent 10-day sojourn to Jamaica, does The18 smell a hint of collusion between Raheem and Rodgers?
Rodgers: “Raheem! Raheem! Have you got a moment?”
Sterling: “Yes boss. What’s up?”
Rodgers: “I’ve got a present for you. How would you like 10 days’ holiday in Jamaica?”
Sterling: “Oh, yes boss! Thank you!”
*Rodgers starts handing over the tickets, then snatches them back*
Rodgers: “Just one thing. This new contract they’ve offered you. I want you to demand they won’t sack me before you sign.”
*Rodgers waves tickets in the air*
Sterling: “Ok, boss, you’ve got a deal”
Rodgers: “Atta boy.”
Makes perfect sense. Or perhaps he just wanted Sterling fresh and recuperated for the second half of the season. Either way, Liverpool are five points off fourth place, with 51 points still to play for.