Manchester City are running away with the Premier League title race and seemingly on course to be crowned champions for the third time in four seasons, but while the biggest prize appears destined for the Etihad again, the battle for Champions League qualification is intensifying with every round of fixtures.
West Ham are the surprise occupants of the fourth and final Champions League spot right now, with nine points separating David Moyes’ team and Tottenham down in ninth position. While Manchester United and Leicester — both four points clear of fourth in second and third, respectively — could still be dragged into the fight, the race is beginning to look like six clubs slugging it out for one position, with Arsenal now surely too far off the pace in tenth, 11 points behind West Ham.
Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa and Spurs will all believe, or hope, they can overtake West Ham in fourth, but for some teams, the task is more challenging than others due to the ground they have to make up between now and the end of the season on May 23.
So how will it play out, and who is most likely to claim fourth spot this season?
WEST HAM: Fourth place, 45 points (25 games)
STATE OF PLAY: The surprise team of the season so far. Two points clear of fifth-placed Chelsea and exceeding all expectations under David Moyes.
THE ROAD TO FOURTH: West Ham’s next two away games, at Manchester City and Manchester United, will test Moyes and his players to the limit, but if they remain in contention after those fixtures, the schedule to the end of the season will boost their confidence, with games against seven teams currently in the bottom half still to come.
Key clashes against rivals for fourth are all at home, with Leicester, Chelsea and Everton all yet to visit the London Stadium.
KEY MAN: Thomas Soucek is one of four West Ham players who have played in all 25 Premier League games so far and his eight goals from midfield have been crucial, but Michail Antonio is the player who gives Moyes’ team the X factor — keeping the forward fit will be hugely important. Declan Rice, goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and on-loan Jesse Lingard are also important characters down the stretch.
HOW MUCH DOES FOURTH MATTER? West Ham are a club with big ambitions to become London’s top team, and their move to the London Stadium in 2016 was designed to propel them into the same bracket as Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal. Inconsistency on the pitch and poor decisions by the owners have held them back so far, but Moyes has brought stability, and Champions League qualification would give them the opportunity to make a giant leap. Yet nothing is certain when it comes to West Ham, and adding Champions League football to next year’s schedule could be a problem if they over-stretch after getting there.
ESPN FC’s Craig Burley addresses the reality of Liverpool potentially missing out on the Champions League for next season.
CHELSEA: Fifth place, 43 points (25 games)
STATE OF PLAY: Frank Lampard was sacked as manager in January with Chelsea in ninth position, five points adrift of fourth. New boss Thomas Tuchel has revived the team’s prospects, however, with four wins and two draws in his six games in charge to move them up to fifth, two points behind West Ham.
ROAD TO FOURTH: Chelsea have a tough road ahead, starting with Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday before facing Liverpool at Anfield and Everton at home. Chelsea also travel to West Ham, City and Aston Villa, with home games to come against Arsenal and Leicester. The next three games — against United, Liverpool and Everton — will tell us whether the Tuchel bounce is short-term or sustainable.
KEY MAN: Timo Werner has been a major disappointment this season after arriving in a £48m deal from RB Leipzig last summer, scoring just five Premier League goals. The 24-year-old was signed to score at least 20 league goals each season, but if he can rediscover his form under fellow German Tuchel, Werner can still be the man to shoot Chelsea into the Champions League.
HOW MUCH DOES FOURTH MATTER? Chelsea have become accustomed to feast or famine in the Champions League, missing out on qualification twice in the last four seasons, but the financial hit from failing to be among Europe’s elite is in the region of £80m a year, so it would mean a substantial hole in the club’s budget for next season.
Chelsea can cope without Champions League football thanks to the backing of owner Roman Abramovich, but make no mistake: being on the outside hurts the club’s finances and prestige.
LIVERPOOL: Sixth place, 40 points (25 games)
STATE OF PLAY: The defending Premier League champions have seen their title slip away due to critical, long-term injuries and a disastrous run of form. Jurgen Klopp’s team are sixth, five points behind West Ham, having lost four straight Premier League games. They have taken two points from a possible 18 at Anfield and suffered four successive home league defeats for the first time in 98 years.
ROAD TO FOURTH: The next three fixtures — Sheff United (a), Chelsea (h), Fulham (h) — are now must-win games, both for points and confidence. Any failure to collect maximum points against Sheff United and Fulham, who are both in the bottom three, will be hugely damaging, but the Anfield clash against Chelsea has become the biggest game of Liverpool’s season due to their respective battle for fourth. If they beat Chelsea, Liverpool will believe they are back on track.
KEY MAN: Most of Liverpool’s key men are injured, with Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson the biggest losses right now. But despite a seemingly disappointing season, Mohamed Salah is still the Premier League’s leading scorer with 17 goals, so it is vital for Liverpool that the Egyptian remains fit and available. If Salah joins the injury list, they can forget about the top four.
HOW MUCH DOES FOURTH MATTER? Despite winning the Champions League, Premier League and FIFA Club World Cup during the past two years, Liverpool have been unable to capitalise on the financial upside of their success because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prize money has been swallowed up by running costs that have been hit hard by the absence of fans in stadiums, so a year out of the Champions League would be a massive blow for Liverpool as it will leave Klopp will little money to spend on new players.
EVERTON: Seventh place, 40 points (24 games)
STATE OF PLAY: Carlo Ancelotti’s team have been inconsistent this season, with wins against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham diminished by defeats against struggling Newcastle (twice), Fulham and Southampton. But Sunday’s win at Liverpool has put them firmly in the hunt for fourth. If they win their game in hand, Everton will be just two points behind West Ham.
ROAD TO FOURTH: Everton’s fate rests on their away form, especially in crucial games against Chelsea and West Ham. Their trip to Stamford Bridge on March 8 already has the feel of an eliminator, with both sides needing to avoid defeat in that one, but the clash with West Ham at the London Stadium on May 8 also has the potential to be a decider if both teams remain in the chase that long. Everton also have important home games against Spurs and Villa to come, but with Man City away in the final game, Ancelotti will want top four to be sealed by then.
KEY MAN: Jordan Pickford was outstanding in Sunday’s 2-0 win at Liverpool, but the England goalkeeper has also been culpable with costly mistakes this season. If Everton are going to qualify for the Champions League, they need their number one to eradicate the errors for the remainder of the season.
HOW MUCH DOES FOURTH MATTER? Everton are a club with a proud history — only United, Liverpool and Arsenal have won more league titles — and they are desperate to recreate their glory days. Qualifying for the Champions League would give them a big financial boost, but it would also help the club emerge from Liverpool’s shadow, especially if they beat their neighbours to fourth.
With plans afoot to move to a new stadium, Champions League qualification would help Everton accelerate their bid to become a major force again.
ASTON VILLA: Eighth place, 36 points (23 games)
STATE OF PLAY: Villa have won just three of their past 10 Premier League games, but having played two games fewer than most of their rivals, they can climb to sixth by winning those outstanding fixtures. Dean Smith’s team appear to running out of steam, but early season wins against Liverpool, Leicester and Arsenal highlight their ability to perform against the big clubs.
ROAD TO FOURTH: Villa’s next four games are against teams in the bottom half, so they have the opportunity to re-ignite their season before a run that sees them take on Spurs, Liverpool and Man City in their next four fixtures. Villa also face Man United and Chelsea in the run-in, so a top four finish looks to be a tall order for a team that narrowly avoided relegation last season.
KEY MAN: Aston Villa are all about Jack Grealish, and it did not go unnoticed that the team lost against Leicester on Sunday with the midfielder sidelined due to injury. Opponents have worked out that stopping Grealish largely stops Villa, but the England international can still cause problems against any opposition. He just needs others to share the burden.
HOW MUCH DOES FOURTH MATTER? Aston Villa were European champions in 1982 and the club will always harbour ambitions to return to the elite, but qualification for the Champions League would be an unexpected bonus this season. Avoiding relegation was the number one priority. But if they do clinch fourth, Villa would have the finances to build themselves into an established Premier League club once again.
Thomas Tuchel explains his decision to substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi off after bringing him on at halftime.
TOTTENHAM: Ninth place, 36 points (24 games)
STATE OF PLAY: Tottenham were Premier League leaders in mid-December, with manager Jose Mourinho eyeing a title challenge. But since reaching top spot, it’s all gone wrong for Spurs, and a run of five defeats in their last six league games have pushed them down to ninth and Mourinho is under growing pressure. They are nine points off fourth, albeit with a game in hand.
ROAD TO FOURTH: On paper, Spurs have a good run of fixtures in the weeks ahead, with five of their next six games against teams below them in the table. Win those and Mourinho’s side will be back in mix for a top-four finish. With games against Everton, Villa and Leicester in their final six fixtures, they can still mount a late surge up the table, but they simply have to start winning again, and quickly.
KEY MAN: While Harry Kane is fit, Spurs have a chance of getting the points they need to get back into the race. The England forward has scored 13 league goals and tops the assists table with 11, so his influence is obvious. Kane also brings out of the best in Heung-Min Son, who also has 13 goals so far. Kane will always deliver, but he needs others to help him out. Gareth Bale was signed to do that, but we’re still waiting for the on-loan Real Madrid winger to deliver.
HOW MUCH DOES FOURTH MATTER? With the final bill for their new stadium passing £1 billion, Spurs desperately need to be in the Champions League every year, simply to keep on top of their finances. Missing out for a second successive season would be hugely damaging, especially in the midst of a pandemic, and could lead to key players being sold. The stakes are high.
West Ham are in fourth right now, but with the pressure on, can they hold their nerve and also avoid injuries to key players? With such a formidable pack of clubs behind them, it is difficult to see the Hammers holding on. Equally, with Villa and Spurs struggling for form, it is looking like a three-way fight between Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton.
There seems to no end in sight to Liverpool’s injury problems and Everton’s inconsistency threatens to haunt them in the weeks ahead, so at this stage of the race, Chelsea are the team most likely to finish fourth. They are in form, have a manager who has made an immediate impact and enough attacking talent to win when it matters.