Manchester City’s two-year ban from European competitions means that, as it stands, fifth place will be enough for a seat at the top table of European football.
But competition is fierce. Current fifth-place incumbents Manchester United lead a pack of seven teams separated by five points. Chelsea are only three points ahead in fourth.
City have launched an appeal against Uefa’s ban but a decision only likely to come from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the summer. If City’s appeal is successful, fifth-place will only be enough for the Europa League.
But until that decision arrives, every team in contention for European football must factor City’s ban into their thinking over the next weeks and months. A back door route to the biggest stage of all is open, for now.
And by calculating the average home and away points-per-game of every Premier League side, we can weigh up the difficulty of each contender’s run-in.
Current position: 3rd
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.37
Despite losing six of their last 11 league games, Leicester remain well-placed. Their cushion over fifth - and sixth - has slowly whittled away but still stands at eight points. There is no reason to be nervous, provided Brendan Rodgers can pick up a few wins down the stretch.
Victories over relegation-threatened Aston Villa, Watford and Brighton in their next three would go a long way to assuring Leicester of a spot in next season’s group stages. The trips to Goodison, the Emirates and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium which follow could be tricky.
And if Rodgers has still not arrested their slide by the time of the final weekend, their fate could be decided against Manchester United at the King Power. It is not the only last day shoot-out that could be on the cards.
Current position: 4th
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.43
Back at the start of December, Chelsea were six points clear of fifth-place. Frank Lampard’s side have won just six of their 15 league games since, and yet that lead over fifth has only been halved to three points.
That says everything about the standard of this European race and Chelsea’s own inconsistency. There is anxiety at Stamford Bridge that a Champions League place could slip out of their grasp, even after the news of City’s ban.
Lampard’s run-in is relatively difficult. Late-season meetings with City and Liverpool are not ideal, nor is a trip to Bramall Lane, but he will hope to take enough points against relegation battlers to avoid needing three points at home to Wolves on the final day.
Current position: 5th
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.36
United’s impressive derby win was a huge boost to their hopes of finishing in the Champions League places but beating the likes of City has not been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s biggest problem this season.
A six-game run against bottom-half opponents somewhat unpredictable. Five of those six teams have already taken points off United this season. Sheffield United will fancy their chances of an upset at Old Trafford too.
How Solskjaer’s side performs during that run will dictate whether they travel to the King Power on the final day of the season confident of Tuesday and Wednesday night European football or needing a season-defining result.
Current position: 6th
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.21
Wolves are the ones to watch. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have arguably the most straight-forward run-in of all and are this race’s dark horses, even after Saturday’s disappointing home draw with Brighton.
Their Champions League credentials will look a lot stronger if they can beat three of the bottom six in their next three games. Wolves have a reputation of doing well against top opposition but have beaten West Ham, Bournemouth and Aston Villa already this year.
The run-in then begins to stiffen up slightly, but a visit from Arsenal is not as intimidating as it once was and they will even be confident of claiming a result at Chelsea. A relatively small squad and Europa League commitments could hamper them but they have every chance.
Current position: 7th
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.34
The underdog success story of the season has been built on a mean defence, with their total of 25 goals conceded only bettered by Liverpool. The question is whether there is enough going on at the other end for a fairytale rise to the Champions League.
Sheffield United have scored just 30 goals in 28 games and once this weekend’s meeting with Newcastle is out of the way, they are likely to play six fellow European contenders in succession.
Four of those six games are at Bramall Lane, where Tottenham and Everton’s poor away records could be exploited, and Wilder’s side have made a habit of exceeding expectations this year. Finishing fifth or higher would be a surprise but cannot be ruled out.
Current position: 7th
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.25
Jose Mourinho appears happy to write this season off, given that he will be without Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son for the remainder of the campaign, but Tottenham still have plenty of opportunities to take points from teams around them.
Four of Spurs’ five home games are against sides currently competing for European places and they are significantly better at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium than on the road. Only Everton have a greater discrepancy between home and away results.
But Mourinho has lost to United, Wolves and twice to Chelsea since taking charge, all while being inconsistent at best against those further down the table. Tottenham’s key injuries and dwindling motivation count heavily against them.
Current position: 9th
Average home/away points of opponents: 1.44
Could they do it? Arsenal are not playing particularly well but they are winning and have a game in hand over many of their rivals. The problem? That game in hand is a return to Manchester City for Mikel Arteta on Wednesday night.
A trip to Molineux and an away north London derby are not ideal either, while Liverpool and Leicester must still visit the Emirates. That might not be so bad for a genuine challenger but Arsenal have only won two games against teams currently in the top half.
Arteta no longer has to split his squad across two fronts following elimination from the Europa League, at least, but a quick return to continental competition looks unlikely given that they have a testing run-in.
Who has the toughest run-in?
Wolves' run-in is marginally the best of the seven contenders, just ahead of injury-plagued Tottenham's, while Chelsea and Arsenal face more testing climaxes to the campaign.
Leicester can be very confident of at least finishing fourth, so long as they do not continue to tailspin. The other two potential Champions League places remain too close to call, though Wolves must be taken seriously.
Nuno’s side have both the form and fixtures to put up a late-season run, though their charge could be affected by European commitments and their unfortunate tendency to draw a lot of games.
United’s hopes of finishing fifth or higher will rest on whether they have learned how to beat bottom-half opponents away from home. Trips to Brighton, Palace and Villa will be key and test of their progress under Solskjaer.
Chelsea have more points on the board than most but inconsistency means their fate is unlikely to be settled any time soon. Leicester against United and Chelsea hosting Wolves on the final day could be the showdown this wide open race deserves.
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