Key players and clashes to tip Premier League top four chase
Some stunning results have dramatically changed the complexion of the beguiling battle for a Premier League top four spot. The race now appears tighter than ever, with just four points between seventh placed Tottenham and Arsenal in fourth.
Champions League football is at stake, but also revenue, prestige and the ability to land Europe’s elite players. Here, Coral writers consider which upcoming key matches and top stars could prove crucial.
The Gunners’ narrow victory over Crystal Palace could prove to be a real turning point in the top four tussle. It seems Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, long criticised for their soft centre, have finally learnt how to add grit to their guile.
Tough away games have long been an Achilles heel, so the ability and mental strength to grind out results could transform this team. While Alexis Sanchez and co have attack covered, Arsenal’s show-boating superstars will need the likes of Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny to keeping bringing consistency to the backline.
Having lost just two of their last 11 league games, the Londoners are odds-on favourites at 1/5 to finish in a top four spot.
Brendan Rodgers’ Reds have shown real resilience to still be in this race, after a poor start to the season and a succession of striker woes. Liverpool appear to have finally found the right balance but, just like direct rivals Tottenham, are pinning their hopes on several young players.
The pressure could well prove too much, but recent wins over close competitors Southampton and Spurs has made the Merseyside men third-favourites at 15/8. To retain their place at the top table, the Reds must emerge unscathed from upcoming back-to-back battles against Arsenal and United. However, fine margins mean they could just as easily tumble out of contention.
Daniel Sturridge’s return could not have been timed better, but Europa League distractions favour the Red Devils and Southampton.
Despite United’s influx of big-name attackers, quiet man Ander Herrera could well be the key to a successful season. Louis van Gaal is supposedly searching for a midfielder to add balance, but already has that player at Old Trafford.
Intelligent in both movement and passing, Herrera has grabbed the opening goals in his past two games. Despite his fine form, this summer Basque buy from Athletic Bilbao should also allow Wayne Rooney an extended run in his natural role up top, and this is the move that could really save the Red Devils.
Unexpected defeat to Swansea City was a blow, but United’s form against fellow big boys bodes well. A tricky run of fixtures including successive duels against Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham throughout Spring looks tough, but the Red Devils have already taken points from all three this term. So the red half of Manchester are still odds-on at 5/6 to scrape through.
Always an underdog in this race, canny coach Ronald Koeman has proven on numerous occasions this season that the Saints should not be written off.
Southampton, 11/4 to clinch a Champions League spot, need Graziano Pelle to start poaching goals again. A lethal predator earlier this campaign, the 29-year-old has not netted in the league since December.
A fantastic defensive record and team spirit alone will not be enough to steer the Saints towards the biggest stage in club football. The south coast side will have to wait until the end of April before facing a top four rival in Tottenham, so need to go up a gear against smaller teams in the meantime.
Spurs have a not-so-secret weapon up their sleeve in the shape of in-form forward Harry Kane. However, can Tottenham realistically expect to challenge if their hopes are pinned on a 21-year-old still to make his senior England bow?
Mauricio Pochettino’s men have claimed big scalps this season, but still come unstuck at the back far too often. Previous Spurs sides have fallen at the last hurdle despite boasting players such as Dimitar Berbatov and Gareth Bale in their ranks.
Away games at Old Trafford and St Mary’s will surely be a true test of their mettle, but the north London club are still a fair shout at 4/1 to sneak in to a top four place, if the combination of Kane and Christian Eriksen can beat their rivals for potency.