Premier League: Race for the top four
Tottenham, Arsenal & Everton are among the clubs fighting to secure a top-four finish
There is no such thing as a certainty in football. There are favourites, likelihoods and champion-elects, but at the end of the day the ball is round, and while the maths are still possible anything can happen.
Last season, for instance: just ask the betting websites that paid early bets on Manchester City, as well as those who paid out early bets on Manchester United shortly after.
United are favourites to win the league, there is no question about that. A 15-point lead over City at this stage seems like an insurmountable advantage and possibly one that the reigning champions might not be able to overcome. But things have become interesting over the last few weeks.
Manchester United's momentum has slowed, courtesy of an unexpected loss to Real Madrid and an equally demoralising FA Cup draw against Chelsea after being 2-0 up. And in recent years, their recovery rates have not been as quick as they are used to. Even their most recent Premier League match against Reading was not their best performances, and it was against one of the worst teams in the league.
If City start pressing, anything can happen while the arithmetic still allows it. The champions are no pushovers and they certainly have the characters to fight until the end. The likes of Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and Joe Hart will not allow the team to give up against their hated rivals.
The remaining contenders for the last two are Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool. All five teams are arguably still in it. Tottenham are definitely among the frontrunners, but faces some clear obstacles.
They have late-stage Europa League commitments in addition to having to keep Gareth Bale focused amidst interest from the biggest European clubs. And while Tottenham are indeed a strong, European-level team, their inspiration these days is almost always Bale. Without him, they lack a cutting edge that they currently enjoy in addition to their strong midfield.
Can the Welshman stay fit and in top form during the crucial final stages of the season? It remains to be seen.
Despite how easy it is to laugh at Arsenal's woes mid-season, history proves that Arsene Wenger knows what it takes to get his men to the Champions League year after year.
It has been the same story with the Gunners in recent years. Around mid-season, people start surmising about the possible replacing of Wenger. Piers Morgan will start whining to every media outlet. Legends like Tony Adams and Ian Wright will weigh in with what they would do better if they were in Wenger's position. Compounding injuries and a comical back-line will make Arsenal look certain for a mid-table finish. Yet, in the end, they somehow always manage a way to find their way back to the top four.
Based on Wenger and his Gunners having proved themselves time and time again, they would be one of the safer bets.
Chelsea are a curious one. While their team struggles to find coherence and fluidity under a universally hated boss, the supporters continue to focus on hurling insults at their manager rather than cheering for their players. It's an odd dynamic indeed, but a true testament to the sheer tenacity of the Blues faithful in their quest to oust the Spaniard.
Credit has to be given to the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Frank Lampard who have managed to wield the necessary influence to keep their team amongst the top. In any case, Chelsea is Chelsea, and their pedigree will keep them in the fight. They have been known to be tough as nails since Jose Mourinho's revolution of the club, and with creative forces in abundance, it is no doubt that the European champions will contend until the last round. Who knows? Maybe Fernando Torres might be given league starts after Demba Ba's recent one-on-one miss against former club West Ham.
David Moyes continues his fine tenure as Everton manager, and he may yet be able to pull it off this year. With a strong first XI and a supporting cast that finally seems capable of playing with their competitors, a clear counter-attacking plan and strong organisation is keeping them in contention. Tactically speaking, Everton are the most consistent team amongst these clubs, except maybe Arsenal. If only their strikers can produce more consistently in the remaining matches, the Toffees could actually do this.
Liverpool are the obvious dark horses in this year's top-four race, but they should not be underestimated. It's been an easy couple years to make fun of the club with a great history.
People have particularly enjoyed highlighting their inability to beat their top-half competitors consistently this season, but the scores of those fixtures have greatly shrouded the content of those games. They might yet be a little too inconsistent to make that final cut, but they have the ability to play against any of the above.
Furthermore, a rampant Luis Suarez sits at the top of the scoring charts without the assistance of a Mata, Hazard, Jack Wilshere or Wayne Rooney next to him. One can only wonder how many wins the focused Uruguayan is capable of dragging the Merseyside club through.
Brendan Rodgers has done well to sign players that take the opposing team's attention away from him, and the scoring charts in recent weeks have shown just that. Don't count them out just yet.
There you have it - food for thought on these top seven teams of the Premier League, fighting to their death for a lucrative Champions League spot.
What do you think the top four will look like at the end of this season?
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