Five teams, two places: EPL's race for Champions League berths
While Chelsea seems to enjoy making things more difficult than they need to be, the Blues still look like very strong favorites to claim the Premier League crown. Likewise, Manchester City has slumbered through large portions of the campaign, but with its sheer amount of class and quality it looks set to finish second, at worst.
That leaves us with the race for third and fourth, and the two* remaining golden tickets to next season's Champions League hanging in the balance. With a dozen matches remaining, a total of four points separates third from seventh place, which should set up a dramatic stretch run.
*The twist, of course, involves Everton, the lone remaining EPL team in action in Europa League after Liverpool and Tottenham were ousted, given the new rule that the Europa League winner is entered into the following season's Champions League. At worst, the Europa League winner will go into the qualifying round for Champions League.
If the Champions League winner this year also qualifies directly from league play for next year–should Chelsea win it all, for example–the Europa League winner would go straight into the group stage since there would be an extra spot available–UCL champion + auto-qualifier through domestic table for same team.
So England can potentially get five Champions League spots, and the Europa League winner would be in the qualifying stage or the group stage depending on who wins the UCL this season.
So which of the five contenders will survive and claim the status and cash of Europe's richest club tournament? Here's a detailed breakdown of what's remaining for each of them, and why each may or may not survive the chase.
Arsenal (3rd place, 48 points)
Remaining Games: 7 home; 5 away
Vs. Top-10 Teams: 5 (4 home); Vs. Bottom-10 Teams: 7
I liked Arsenal to finish third since before the season, and both the Gunners' underlying performance and remaining schedule continue to support that belief.
Arsenal's advanced stats have cooled off a bit since midseason, but the Gunners are still pretty much on par with Southampton in terms of both expected goals ratio and total shots ratio.
Those two clubs are well ahead of the others except surging Liverpool, whose recent 10-match unbeaten run hasn't flattered them based on the Reds' rapidly improving advanced stats.
In more simplistic terms, the Gunners have won five of their last six league matches and only have one away match left against a top-half side (at Manchester United on the penultimate week of the season, when it might not matter for Arsenal), and only three total matches left against the current top seven (they host both Chelsea and Liverpool in April). In other words, they can make some hay in the next month and provide themselves with some wiggle room.
Of course, if Wednesday's Champions League debacle vs. Monaco taught us anything, it's that Arsenal shouldn't be overlooking anyone.
Manchester United (4th place, 47 points)
Remaining Games: 6 home; 6 away
Vs. Top 10: 5 (3 home); Vs. Bottom 10: 7
It's not being anti-United to say there has been a decent amount of good fortune that has led the Red Devils to this point, but teams with good players can make their own luck. Can United continue to grind out the points it needs to make it back into the Champions League? I continue to be a non-believer on that front.
United is in this position mostly because it is currently 8-0-0 at home against the bottom half of the table. While all points count the same in the standings, United has yet to fully convince it can pick up the needed points against those around them to hold onto a top-four slot. United also only has three away wins all season, and while they have managed seven draws away from Old Trafford, United is nearly done with the true relegation contenders already, so anything it pockets from here will be well-earned.
Advanced stats continue to suggest this is a bit of an inflated position, and 12 matches, while not a lot, is still a sizable number when the table is this close. If I were a betting man, I'd pick United to miss the top four come season's end, as much because the two teams directly behind it are playing quite well.
Southampton (5th place, 46 points)
Remaining Games: 5 home; 7 away
Vs. Top 10: 4 (1 home); Vs. Bottom 10: 8
The Saints are sort of the opposite of Manchester United in the sense that their underlying advanced stats are very good. They're currently second in the Premier League in both Danger Zone shots taken (basically from outside each post out to the 18-yard-line; the most fruitful scoring area) and Danger Zone shots allowed. Their expected goal ratios are on par with Arsenal. Translation: This team is not a fluke, although it might be getting a bit worn down as the season progresses and the pressure mounts.
While they have more away matches then the others ahead of them, the Saints have a pretty favorable schedule.
They do have trips remaining to both Chelsea and Manchester City, which obviously isn't great, but they only have two other top-10 matches left and have seven contests remaining against the current bottom eight, against whom they're 6-2-1 this season.
I have been picking Southampton to hold on to fourth place for awhile now, but my conviction is wavering some given how well the team on its heels is playing.
Liverpool (6th place, 45 points)
Remaining Games: 6 home; 6 away
Vs. Top 10: 6 (2 home); Vs. Bottom 10: 6
Yes, Liverpool was somewhat fortunate on Sunday, when numerous tough officiating decisions went its way in an eventual 2-0 win at Southampton, but that was the Reds' fifth straight league clean sheet away from Anfield. It also ran the club's overall Prem unbeaten streak to 10. In that time, the Reds have steadily marched from 10th to sixth place and have the look of a side that finally has figured out how to function without the prolific Luis Suarez leading the line.
The remaining schedule is pretty balanced. Liverpool still has cracks at each of the current top four, split two and two home and away. The remaining away matches may be slightly tougher than the home ones, but just marginally so. Basically, it's all there for the Reds. They have more than enough time to make up the small amount of ground on at least two of the teams ahead of them, and the advanced stats–fueled by this recent surge–suggest there's a solid chance they can.
This weekend, they get a crack at Manchester City, coming off a gut-wrenching loss to Besiktas in the Europa League round of 32 on Thursday. That match was Liverpool's first return to the Atatürk Olimpiyat Stadium in Istanbul since the remarkable comeback from 3-0 down to Inter Milan to win the 2005 Champions League final in a shootout. Ironically, Liverpool was ousted in PKs.
Tottenham (7th place, 44 points)
Remaining Games: 5 home: 7 away
Vs. Top 10: 5 (2 home); Vs. Bottom 10: 7
While the ability to pick up points from a trailing position–Spurs lead the Prem this season with 16 of those–is a very handy skill, being in that position so often is not. This has the look of a team that's wearing down from the rigors of the league combined with Europa League and a run to the League Cup final.
Tottenham has played 10 matches in the last five weeks, and it seems to be catching up to it.
Spurs are 3-1-1 at home against the teams ahead of them, but just 0-3-1 away and still have trips to Manchester United and Southampton ahead.
Spurs are also just +5 in goal differential and their underlying stats aren't much better than that.
Even if Harry Kane continues his prolific scoring, it looks likely that this will be another year where Spurs both miss the Champions League and suffer the indignity of St. Totteringham's Day, the artificial holiday celebrated by Arsenal fans when the Gunners clinch a standings place ahead of Spurs.