Why the five lead contenders will or won’t

    Why they will qualify: They’re in third place and deserve to be there. Other than Liverpool and Manchester City, Brendan Rodgers’ side have played the best football in the division. The spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Jonny Evans, Caglar Soyuncu, Wilfred Ndidi, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy has been unshowy but productive. A case could be made for any of those players to be in the team of the year.

    They’ve also conceded the second fewest number of goals this season, and in Vardy, have the Premier League’s top scorer.

    Why they won’t qualify: They appear to be in the process of imploding. Two Premier League wins since New Year’s Day; one goal scored since the restart; their lead over fifth-placed Wolves incredibly now just three points. They shouldn’t even be in this article – qualification should have been a done deal by now.

    There was a point before Christmas when they had that wonderful balance of having a settled team, yet still competition for places. It’s now the exact opposite: very few – if any – of the first team are playing well, and there doesn’t appear to be much pressure from the second string to replace them. What was deemed to be a strong squad at the turn of the year now looks like one severely lacking in options.

    Being dumped out of the FA Cup is a positive in terms of fixture congestion; they can now focus on the league. But it can’t have done much for morale. Chelsea were shockingly bad in the first half at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Leicester had several chances to take a two or three-goal lead. But those opportunities were created through their opponent’s inadequacy rather than their own good football. And in fact they messed up the only bit of football they had to do in missing the target, often by significant margins.

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    Vardy’s stopped scoring, Soyuncu looks angry rather than stoic, Ndidi is giving the ball away, and although we know Ricardo Pereira is a fantastic footballer, his absence surely can’t be as significant as it’s being made to look right now.

    Add to their collapse the other teams’ collective rise and Leicester must have a crick in the neck from all that craning over their shoulder.


    Why they will qualify: Frank Lampard is a tactical genius. Well, either that or he gets his starting line-up wrong every time and is made to look like one by bringing on the players who should have been in the original XI. At Leicester, as against Aston Villa in the first game back, and Man City to a lesser extent, the Chelsea substitutions made a real difference. And Lampard does deserve some credit.

    We questioned whether he was just a Chelsea mascot, an excellent figurehead for the club but not a true coach. But he has shown in a win without the ball against City, and in his borderline brutal withdrawal of Chelsea youngsters Reece James and Billy Gilmour at half-time against Leicester, that he is a strategist as well as a persuader.

    Unlike at Leicester, there is real competition for places at Chelsea, with the players spurred on to impress in the knowledge that they can easily be replaced for next season as the Blues continue to flex their financial muscle.

    The midfield looks far more balanced and secure with N’Golo Kante in that lone defensive role. Ross Barkley is providing. Mateo Kovacic continues to be a gorgeous footballer. The likes of Willian and Christian Pulisic – who has had a superb debut season at Stamford Bridge – look like they can create something out of nothing at any moment, and frequently do so.

    Why they won’t qualify: They’ve got one hell of a run in. Lampard will want to have all but secured qualification before the last two games: Liverpool (a), Wolves (h).

    They won’t be scared by those games, especially given they’ve just beaten Man City and Leicester, but they won’t fancy a final day shootout with Wolves for a Champions League spot. They could easily win the next five and put qualification beyond doubt before they even get to Liverpool. On current form, games against West Ham, Watford, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Norwich shouldn’t be too much trouble for Lampard’s side.

    The potential to make a defensive or goalkeeping rick at any moment remains, however. Kante’s new position has gone some way to tempering the imbalance in Chelsea’s side, but he can’t cover for every mistake.


    Why they will qualify: Nuno Espirito Santo is actually a tactical genius. He’s got the most prolific partnership in the Premier League in Adama Traore and Raul Jimenez, one that would lead most to select a team to aide that duo, often to the detriment of the whole.

    But rather than forcing Traore into a narrow 3-5-2 formation against Aston Villa, Nuno left him on the bench – as he has done frequently this season – knowing full well that there is no better player to introduce in the second half, to make the difference when space opens up as the opposition tires. It’s premium fuel for a Champions League challenge.

    And there’s just such unity at Wolves. Transfer rumours about Traore disappear as quickly as they emerge, without the need to be quashed by manager or player. Jimenez can admit to being flattered by interest from Liverpool and Man Utd without anyone genuinely thinking he fancies a move. It just seems like a great environment to play football. One where hard work pays off and clear goals have been set and so far, always achieved.

    Nuno’s side haven’t scored a first-half goal since the restart, but at no point in their victories over West Ham, Bournemouth and Villa did you question their ability to claim all three points. Unlike Chelsea and Manchester United, theirs has been a settled team for a long time. Nothing in the Premier League run-in will be on the fly under Nuno; this group of players just knows how to win games of football – they’ve been doing it for years now.

    Why they won’t qualify: The worst-kept secret is out: we all know how good Wolves are now, and that they have a very realistic chance of getting into the Champions League. They can no longer hide behind the Big Six as they play out their game of who can be the least s**t. We see you Wolves. Here comes the pressure.

    And furthermore, Chelsea and Manchester United appear to have bowed out of the best of the worst contest and are actually looking pretty good. Any dropped points from now on could be a disaster, whereas for much of the season a loss for one side would inevitably be followed by one from the other.

    Wolves have so far been battling themselves – their own fitness and commitments with a ludicrous number of games being played. But they are now in a very real fight with battle-hardened Champions League giants, who appear to have woken from a near season-long snooze.


    Manchester United
    Why they will qualify: Everything’s coming up roses at Old Trafford. Bruno Fernandes is the signing of the season, Paul Pogba’s taken a break from sulking and is playing with a smile on his face, Anthony Martial is proving moronic writers wrong, Marcus Rashford is the best man in the country; the four of them together look as threatening as any combination in the league. And Harry Maguire is going all Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and banging in late goals.

    They also really, really need to qualify – probably more so than anyone else. Who knows what Pogba will do if they fail to? We know Mino Raiola will start offering him up across Europe again. That could be an abrupt end to the potentially very profitable Pogba-Fernandes axis in midfield. And what about about Jadon Sancho?

    Ed Woodward – when it looked very unlikely United would mount a serious Champions League qualification bid – claimed three words would be enough to lure Sancho to Old Trafford. History. Heritage. Pedigree. I hope the smell of bulls**t doesn’t make the retching worse.

    Why they won’t qualify: They’ve left it too late. It was as obvious at the start of the season as it was in January that United lacked creativity in midfield. Pogba was gunning for a move and didn’t look like he wanted to play when he was, then got injured, so wasn’t anyway.

    If Solskjaer had signed Fernandes in the summer, they wouldn’t be in this mess, on the verge of disaster. He’s had the biggest immediate impact at United since Robin van Persie. And while we’re not suggesting Fernandes would have fired United to the title like the Dutchman did had he arrived in the summer, they would be a hell of a lot closer.

    Their final game of the season against Leicester could be crucial if they remain within touching distance. Which is likely, as they don’t look like dropping points with their attacking firepower against the weaker teams. The less David de Gea has to deal with, the better.


    Why they will qualify: If…. Vardy doesn’t score another goal, Kepa Arrizabalaga throws one in per game, Traore and Jimenez clash heads and are concussed and training ground handbags cause Pogba to refuse to pass to Fernandes.

    Why they won’t qualify: See above. Jose Mourinho was left too much to do and still did much of that badly. Next season, maybe.

    Will Ford is on Twitter


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