It was looking like a two-horse race between Arsenal and Chelsea for the coveted fourth-place in the Premier League but Manchester United have enjoyed a renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, blowing the contest wide open.
United’s season looked dead and buried when Jose Mourinho left the club languishing 11 points adrift the top four in December, but Solskjaer has rejuvenated fortunes, taking the club to within touching distance of the Champions League spots – just a point behind current occupiers Arsenal.
The Gunners themselves have experienced a mixed season under Unai Emery, but the club are no strangers to a top four race and the players will know just what it takes to get across the line – cue the obligatory dressing room selfies.
As for Chelsea, well Maurizio Sarri is a man severely under pressure, and achieving a top four finish could salvage his career; it is unlikely the Italian will be in the dugout next season were the club to miss out on Champions League football.
It is a top four battle of epic proportion, with twists and turns guaranteed for the final 11 matches, but how could the table look come May 12?
Fixtures: Bournemouth (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester United (h), Wolves (a), Newcastle United (h), Everton (a), Watford (a), Crystal Palace (h), Leicester City (a), Brighton & Hove Albion (h), Burnley (a)
Bankers: Newcastle United, Everton, Crystal Palace, Brighton & Hove Albion, Burnley
The Gunners have been more assured on home turf, winning 11 Premier League matches at the Emirates to just five on the road, so matches against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton in north London should not prove too strenuous for a club of Arsenal’s ability.
The away fixture to Burnley has the makings of a more challenging encounter as the club have enjoyed something of a revitalisation in recent weeks, but Sean Dyche has fended the threat of relegation so may be in holiday mode come the end of the season, which would certainly bode well for Emery.
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Lastly, Everton have an abysmal record against Arsenal, winning just twice in their last 25 matches, and with their current form, this should be a breeze.
Banana Skins: Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester City, Wolves
Bournemouth have already demonstrated just how clinical they can be this season, notably the 4-0 humbling of Chelsea last month, so Arsenal will have their work cut out when they host Eddie Howe’s side – the Cherries play with a frantic intensity, which could prove problematic for the Gunners, as it was in the reverse fixture.
Watford and Wolves are currently the best of the rest – sitting seventh and eighth respectfully – and have both been devastating in recent outings. Gerard Deulofeu has hit scintillating form, while Raul Jimenez has demonstrated his poacher’s touch, now on 10 league goals.
Finally, Leicester City could prove a threat despite the recent sacking of Claude Puel. In fact, this could prove the catalyst in this potential banana skin as his dismissal will give the likes of Jamie Vardy and Demarai Gray a new lease of life in a more attack-minded system.
Must-wins: Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Wolves
The key fixture here is Man Utd, in what could prove the decisive fixture of this top four race. Emery will need to rally the troops when they welcome a revitalised United next month, but Solskjaer has proven an astute coach and is yet to suffer defeat in the league.
Before that match, however, Arsenal will have to contest in the second north London Derby to be played at Wembley in as many years, but the club have not achieved a double over their bitter arch-rivals since the 2013/14 season, and Mauricio Pochettino will be determined to exact revenge.
Projected points total: 20 points
Final finish: 73 points (fifth place)
Fixtures: Crystal Palace (a), Southampton (h), Arsenal (a), Watford (h), Wolves (a), West Ham (h), Everton (a), Man City (h), Chelsea (h), Huddersfield (h), Cardiff (h)
Bankers: Crystal Palace, Southampton, Everton, Huddersfield, Cardiff
United simply look brilliant under Solskjaer, playing with the sort of attacking panache reminiscent of those halcyon Sir Alex Ferguson days, and that will likely prove too much for the likes of strugglers Southampton, Huddersfield and Cardiff.
Crystal Palace and Everton will be trickier customers, but the former, in Palace, have only won three matches at Selhurst Park this term, while Marco Silva is yet to mastermind a win against a ‘top six’ opponent this campaign.
Banana Skins: Watford, Wolves, West Ham
As mentioned, Watford and Wolves have excelled this season, combining robust central midfields with attacking flair – Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure for Watford and Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho for Wolves.
Meanwhile, West Ham have already caused United problems this season, albeit under the auspices of a different regime, but Manuel Pellegrini has thrived in east London and recently welcomed back a plethora of long-term absentees – crucially, talisman Manuel Lanzini.
Must-wins: Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea
United have an ominous fixture list with the club yet to play their two adversaries in his fierce top four run-in. Solskjaer has already overseen victories against both Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup since taking the helm, but the Premier League is a different beast altogether, and these two sides will have crucially learnt a lot about the Norwegian’s playing style – there is no longer the element of surprise for Solskjaer.
The Manchester Derby against Pep Guardiola’s side presents the strange scenario where some United fans may actually want City to win to thwart Liverpool’s title aspirations. That said, United have their own objectives and Solskjaer is still fighting for a future in the hotseat, so expect a fully fledged XI.
Projected points total: 24 points
Final finish: 76 points (fourth place)
Fixtures: Tottenham (h), Fulham (a), Wolves (h), Everton (a), Brighton (h), Cardiff (a), West Ham (h), Liverpool (a), Burnley (h), Man Utd (a), Watford (h), Leicester City (a)
Bankers: Fulham, Brighton, Cardiff, Burnley
Few fixtures look certain bankers for Sarri, such has been the recent turmoil of his short tenure in west London, but the club still boast an embarrassment of attacking riches and should have little difficulty overpowering the likes of Fulham, Brighton, Cardiff and Burnley – four sides who have been guilty of defensive aberrations this term.
Banana Skins: Wolves, Everton, West Ham, Watford, Leicester City
There is a lot of potential for things to go from bad to worse for Sarri as two of those clubs – Wolves and Leicester – have already inflicted bitter defeats to his side, and they certainly have the potential – and quality – to turn the screw and rub further salt into Sarri’s widening wounds.
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Elsewhere, West Ham halted the Italian’s winning start back in September, keeping Chelsea at bay in a 0-0 stalemate at the London Stadium, while Everton had identical success just two months later, so will both pose a significant threat. Watford, meanwhile, have flourished under Javi Gracia, whose synthesis of midfield aggression and attacking elan is guaranteed to cause Sarri problems.
Must-wins: Tottenham, Liverpool, Man Utd
The coming months will determine Sarri’s future, but the current forecast looks bleak for the Italian, though results against his ‘top six’ rivals will certainly change the complexion of his diminishing reputation in west London.
Man Utd is the big fixture, a win at Old Trafford would alleviate the growing trepidation encompassing Stamford Bridge and put the club in a solid position to clinch a top four finish, but Solskjaer is certain to target Jorginho and suffocate the metronome.
A failure to prepare for Plan B will cost Sarri, whose current crop will struggle to hold their own under the seismic intensity – and vigour – of Liverpool’s and Spurs’ extremely high-octane press.
Projected points total: 22 points
Final finish: 72 points (sixth place)