The Premier League may not have much of a title race to speak of this season but the battle to finish in the top four and earn a place in next year’s Champions League is still just about alive.
Chelsea and Leicester City currently occupy third and fourth place and look relatively comfortable but they face busy, difficult run-ins, with FA Cup and Champions League finals to prepare for.
The other contenders - West Ham and Liverpool - have no such problems and can focus solely on the task at hand, but have ground to make up if they are to mount a late push.
With only a handful of games left, The Independent has broken down the run-ins, checking the average home and away points-per-game and average expected goal difference (xGD) of their remaining opponents.
Who has the best run-in and who has the worst?
3. Leicester City
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Fears of another late season collapse were spreading through the east Midlands after the stunning 4-2 defeat to Newcastle but Leicester have taken a huge step towards Champions League football.
Caglar Soyuncu’s match-winning header against a much-changed Manchester United breathed new life into the Foxes’ push for a top-four finish, though there is still work to do once Saturday’s FA Cup final is out of the way.
Leicester follow a Wembley date with Chelsea by facing them at Stamford Bridge, then Tottenham visit the King Power. The eight-point cushion over fifth is a lead that even they will struggle to let slip, though.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐
The fear for Chelsea heading into the most recent round of fixtures was that they not only had a busy schedule with FA Cup and Champions League finals to prepare for, but that they also faced the toughest domestic run-in. What a difference one win makes.
Marcos Alonso’s late winner against Manchester City at the Etihad was huge for Thomas Tuchel’s side, securing three points from their biggest test between now and the end of the campaign.
A top-four finish now looks likely but run-in is still tough, with Arsenal and Leicester visiting Stamford Bridge before a trip to Villa. Chelsea cannot afford to get complacent but they are in a good position. A couple more wins should do it.
5. West Ham
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐
Sunday’s defeat to Everton was the latest setback in West Ham’s unlikely push for a top four place. David Moyes has refused to throw the towel in but admitted in his post-match interviews that their 1-0 reverse could be “costly”.
Fortunately, West Ham’s run-in is relatively kind and the easiest on paper according to home and away points-per-game. All three of their remaining opponents are in the bottom half and Moyes’ men have been reliable against teams at that end of the table.
What’s more, none of three have anything to play for. Brighton and Southampton are safe, while West Bromwich’s relegation was confirmed at the weekend. Nine points from nine would give West Ham a chance.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐1/2
Liverpool are the ones to watch. Even though they have repeatedly passed up opportunities to gain ground on their rivals, they took maximum points from Saturday’s meeting with Southampton and have a game in hand over the other contenders.
Once that rearranged trip to Old Trafford is out of the way, their run-in is very kind. Like West Ham, all three of their other opponents are in the bottom half of the table and have nothing to play for.
Still, their fate is not in their own hands so they cannot afford any slip ups like the late draws against Leeds and Newcastle. Winning at Old Trafford could be key.
Liverpool have not looked like a top-four side since Christmas but a near-perfect end of the season could help salvage their otherwise forgettable campaign.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐
It has taken longer than many expected but Tottenham finally look like they can be counted out of the race. Defeat at Leeds on Saturday effectively consigned Spurs to a second straight season without Champions League football.
With three games left, the maxiumum number of points that Ryan Mason's side can take is 64, with fourth-place Leicester only one point off reaching that total. Mason had done well to keep hopes alive for this long by winning his first two league games in charge.
A Europa League place is by no means out of the question but a spot in next season's inaugural Conference League looks more likely, particularly as their run-in from here is made up of three capable sides in Wolves, Aston Villa and Leicester.
What if Chelsea finish outside the top four but win the Champions League?
In this scenario, Chelsea would join the Premier League’s top four in next season’s Champions League as the Premier League’s fifth representative.
The Premier League can send a maximum of five teams to the Champions League.
The fourth-place finishers would only have missed out on qualification if Chelsea had won the Champions League while finishing outside the top four and Arsenal had also won the Europa League.
Arsenal’s semi-final elimination at the hands of Villarreal means the teams who finish in the top four will all qualify for the Champions League.
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