Who would have thought it? In yet another twist to this truly fascinating Premier League season, the race for the final Champions League spot appears to be back on.
In a midweek set of fixtures that saw all of the top four teams falter, including Tottenham losing to West Ham, a few sides made their presence known and reminded people that this race is far from over. With just under a quarter of games left to play, there are sure to be yet more revelations in this exciting run-in.
Louis Van Gaal and his players responded to a seemingly endless barrage of criticism by putting on a nice little run of form just when it matters. At the time of writing they are level on points with Manchester City. Now Manuel Pellegrini’s men are off the boil and aren’t even guaranteed a top-four finish.
Van Gaal, on the other hand, seems to have found the right balance with his team, and it was the young players who held the key. Jesse Lingard and now Marcus Rashford, who has the backing of former United man Danny Welbeck, both academy products, have helped turn United’s season around and are doing more than enough to keep the Dutchman in a job, for now. The two Manchester clubs face off at the end of March in a game that could have a lot riding on it.
West Ham have had an incredible season under Slaven Bilic. They are playing some of the most attractive football in the league, and are enjoying yet another excellent spell of form. Although Bilic has played the Irons’ chances of a Champions League spot down, they have a very good chance with these players. Dimitri Payet and summer signing Michail Antonio are both proving to be excellent deals and have been key components to West Ham’s success this season. Fans should certainly dare to dream that they will be hosting the elite teams of Europe at their new stadium next season.
These teams should also keep an eye out for Stoke and Liverpool, both of whom may be able to make a final push for fourth spot. Liverpool’s emphatic victory to get revenge over City (see above) after their cup final defeat showed the potential that these players have when they click and are hungry for a win.
Stoke have put a nice run of victories together in the last few games, and their key players are really starting to gel. European football is certainly within their grasp, although fourth spot may be a tough ask. The Potters are starting to look like a very exciting team in the making.
Will City drop further?
City really have hit a dire run of form, and haven’t won a Premier League match since their 1-0 victory over Sunderland at the start of February. Since then, they dropped points to title rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City, and were well beaten by Liverpool at Anfield. In this time, they have conceded eight league goals and only scored two themselves. This allowed a ten-point gap to emerge between themselves and the leaders, and City look to be heading in the wrong direction in the league.
City’s recent problems emerged after the unfortunate injury of Kevin de Bruyne, who had been one of the crucial components in City’s attack this season. David Silva has looked a shadow of his former self since returning from injury, Yaya Toure has shown flickers of brilliance but his heart doesn’t seem in it anymore. Raheem Sterling is still very much a work in progress. Sergio Aguero can be devastating on his day, but at the moment he just isn’t getting enough service from the midfield.
Have Pellegrini and City given up? This downturn in form also coincided with the news that Pep Guardiola will be taking over as manager at the end of the season, and it is clear that this has had an impact on things at the Etihad. What an intriguing twist it would be if City were to miss out on Champions League football before the crowning of their new manager.
As the Premier League enters its final stages there is certainly a lot more excitement yet to come. The title race is still wide open, and the top-four places are by no means cut and dried. A lot of teams in the top half still have a lot to fight for. The way this season has gone so far, would it be surprising to see Chelsea make a final push for the top places? It is still mathematically possible, and they have started to look like the same team that won the league so emphatically last season.
The thing that has made this season so spectacular is the fact that it has been so hard to predict. Anything can happen in any match, and there are sure to be some epic battles between now and the final day.