This year’s title race has nothing on last year’s, and the relegation fight is going to be more dreadful than ever. It is the contest for the two Champions League places underneath Chelsea and Manchester City, then, which should provide the best mixture of quality and excitement over the final months of the Premier League season. There are five teams going for two places, as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool try to catch up with the surprisingly good Southampton and surprisingly poor Manchester United.
It is certainly the best story of this weekend. Arsenal and Manchester United have difficult away trips today, Tottenham have a tricky derby while Southampton – this year’s insurgents – host Liverpool – last year’s insurgents – Sunday afternoon.
Amid a familiar pack, Southampton are the wild card. They are the only team never to have played in the Champions League. They last finished in the top four of the top flight in 1984. And yet they are the side, at least until recently, with the most momentum.
Their season has been the story of an unlikely alchemy of new signings, a new coach and a group of gifted youngsters. They have played attractive, winning football, surprising their opponents. Their manager, Ronald Koeman, said yesterday the players “do not feel pressure”. They were never expected to be up here this long.
Southampton host Liverpool tomorrow and while their home form has dipped recently – they failed to score against Swansea and West Ham – Koeman is confident that Brendan Rodgers’ approach should make for a more open game. “Swansea and West Ham didn’t come to play open,” he said, “I don’t expect Liverpool to come in that way. This game is totally different.”
If Southampton are to out-score Liverpool they will need the stars of their early season – Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic – to refind scoring form. Koeman said that tomorrow would be “the best time for Pelle to score the goal he needs”. Pelle and Tadic, like the rest of this squad, have not been in this position in the Premier League before and so Koeman’s hope is to turn the pressure on to their opponents.
“We still have four more points than Liverpool,” Koeman pointed out. “If we win it will be seven, and it will be difficult for them to catch Southampton.” If they are to make it, they may still need their rivals to slip.
The story of Liverpool’s season has been of Rodgers’ attempts to get his team back to the level of last year, without the one player who made it all possible.
They started slowly, porous at the back but, even worse, desperately ponderous in attack. Daniel Sturridge was injured while Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert looked out of place in the side.
Full credit, then, must go to Rodgers for working out on the training ground how best to arrange his team, finding a way which gets some pace and incision back in the side. Liverpool have been playing a 3-4-2-1 system, first with Raheem Sterling as the centre-forward and now with Sturridge or Balotelli. That pace in behind has provided more room for Philippe Coutinho, drifting off the frontman, and he has been their outstanding player in recent weeks.
For the first time since they came so close to last year’s Premier League title, Liverpool have real momentum again. It could well take them deep into the latter stages of the FA Cup and Europa League – a trophy would be a perfect goodbye for Steven Gerrard – but in terms of money and recruitment another shot at the Champions League would be vital.
Liverpool have some catching up to do – they are seventh, four points behind Southampton – but this is still the time of the season when you would rather have momentum than points on the board, if only just. This run may not take them all the way into the top four, but it will certainly take them close.
All season, Manchester United’s results have been better than their performances. If they can keep that going for the final weeks of the season they will be back in the Champions League next year.
It has not been easy for Louis van Gaal, trying to restore confidence and form where they had sapped away during a traumatic 2013-14 season. For all the money that was spent in the summer he still has an unbalanced squad, lacking experience at centre-back and authority in central midfield.
In that context, the fact that Manchester United are still third, still just five points behind title-chasing Manchester City, is to be applauded. But given the poverty of so many of their displays, the lack of pace, the lack of ideas, the slow passing, the misuse of Wayne Rooney, there is still a lingering fear that their weaknesses may catch up with them, that other teams with more form and momentum, playing better football, may just beat them across the line.
The injury situation which threatened to ruin their first half of the season has more or less abated and now Van Gaal has no excuse but to pick a balanced, aggressive side which is ready to take the initiative. That means Rooney up front, not in midfield, with either Radamel Falcao or Robin van Persie but certainly not both. Ander Herrera ought to be restored in midfield while Angel Di Maria, potentially the best player in the Premier League, has to find a role in which he can use his pace.
The raw materials are there to secure third place, and a manager of Van Gaal’s experience ought to be able to use them.
One of the annual guarantees of the serious end of the season is that Tottenham Hotspur will be there, stretching and reaching for a fourth-placed finish that looks just beyond them. They grasped it in 2010 and 2012 only to be denied Champions League football by Chelsea’s European Cup win – and just missed out on the final day in 2013.
This year it has felt like a harder challenge than ever. They have a new manager in place, who has not spent much money on a squad, shorn of stars, which has been outstripped by its rivals.
So it has been a remarkable effort for them to get where they are. Tomorrow’s game with West Ham will be their 43rd official game of the season – and West Ham’s 31st. Then they have a Europa League last 32 second leg with Fiorentina and the Capital One Cup final against Chelsea.
That three-front success has been a tribute to Mauricio Pochettino’s fitness and conditioning work, a reward for their punishing pre-season. But they laboured to a 1-1 draw with Fiorentina on Thursday and, for the first time for a while, they looked tired.
Pochettino bristled at the suggestion on Thursday night but if anything keeps them out of the top four it will be the sheer weight of games. Their defeats of Chelsea and Arsenal show how the first XI can play, but the resources could just be beyond them.
Confidence, though, is high. “We’re training every day and we have trained to be fit enough that we are ready for these games,” said Ben Davies, “so we are confident.”
Every season Arsenal look like they may drop out of the Champions League and yet every season they fight their way back in. For all the annual fears that Arsenal might be caught up by their rivals, that they may finally drop out, it never happens. This would be their 17th consecutive year of finishing in the top four.
Long-term consistency has always been the focus and this year they are performing to expectations. They are still in the FA Cup and Champions League but, aside from one unpredicted win at Manchester City, they have done little out of the ordinary.
Alexis Sanchez started the season brilliantly, single-handedly delivering them goals and points his team-mates did not always deserve. He has looked rather worn-out recently, though, suffering hamstring and knee complaints, and needs a rest.
Football is a team game, though, and it was only since cathartic talks after their New Year’s Day defeat at Southampton that Arsenal have found some balance and defensive cohesion. They have improved since Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla were restored to central midfield, given the long-term injuries to Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta and the three hamstring strains of Aaron Ramsey. Wilshere is back after three months out, and will be in contention at Selhurst Park, but he will not displace Cazorla.
There are bigger questions further forward, with Mesut Özil, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck all recently returned from injuries. Of course, many of Arsenal’s rivals would love to have those forwards to choose from and Wenger will probably keep changing and rotating until he finds the right combinations. As ever, they should just have enough resources to get over the line.Reuse content