As Chelsea and Manchester City look set to duke it out for top spot in the Barclay’s Premier League, the race for fourth heats up as a single point separates each side from third to seventh.
Game week 26 saw Arsenal emerge as the weekend’s biggest winners as they jumped from fifth to third, while Liverpool swapped places with Tottenham and leapt into sixth place. The Reds now look like launching a genuine assault on fourth spot as they make it four wins on the trot.
While Liverpool and Arsenal picked up wins and keep moving in a positive direction; Manchester United, Spurs and Southampton all dropped points and crucially they all dropped down a league position. Out of that trio of point-droppers, United look the most bereft of inspiration, losing to Swansea 2-1 after a lacklustre performance. Louis van Gaal’s team played with a distinct lack of pace, width and incision and are looking like a truly blunt and spent force.
The manner of that loss has put serious questions on the lips of the United fans, as to whether their minimum expectation of securing European football by the end of the season will materialise. United drop down to fourth place from third and are clinging on to the final Champions League place by the skin of their teeth.
As one side in red struggles to cement their place as England’s fourth best team, another emerges as a bona fide contender. A resurgent Liverpool have refused to bow out of the race for fourth and with it, real hope of grabbing that prized qualifying spot for the UEFA Champions League. The Merseysiders have picked up 17 points out of a possible 21 since January, with their latest victory coming in a 2-0 win over Southampton at St. Marys, which completes a league double for Liverpool over the Saints.
Liverpool now sit in striking distance of fourth place and just two points behind Van Gaal’s United. Brendan Rodger’s men haven’t lost in the Premier League since their 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford on December 14. The Reds are now the leagues form side, winning five, drawing two and losing none since the beginning of 2015.
“We knew if we drew the game [against Southampton] today, there were enough games still to make a challenge for the top four. But to win the game was a giant step.” glowed Rodgers after the full-time whistle.
“My only regret is that we didn’t really get going until November. We’re three points off third place, which is great.”
Rodgers may be dismayed by his teams slow start, but with Daniel Sturridge returning to fitness, Mario Balotelli looking like he’s finding some sort of form and Phillipe Coutinho adding goals to his game, it is no wonder that many are tipping last year’s runners-up for a fourth place finish this time out.
Southampton will feel aggrieved by that loss to Liverpool and the decisions by referee, Kevin Friend, not to award a penalty on two occasions and the decision not punish Simon Mignolet for handling the ball outside his box, but Southampton may have only themselves to blame. A slow passing tempo coupled with impotence up front left the Saints struggling to breach a mediocre Liverpool backline. While Koeman’s team have the meanest defence in the league, having conceded just 19, it is their attacking prowess that is a cause for concern and is what will ultimately decide if they will play in Europe for the first time since 2004.
Spurs will say they stand as good a chance as any at reaching Europe’s premier club competition, but in reality they are the least likely to sneak into the fourth spot. Trying to balance a run in Europe, a league cup final plus their league commitments may prove to be too much football at once for Mauricio Pochettino and his men.
If Spurs are to last the pace in the race for fourth, then their fate rests with one Harry. Kane was on hand to pull his team back from the brink, scoring at the second time of asking after missing his initial penalty in the dying moments of a pulsating London Derby. The 21-year-old bagged his 24th goal of the season in the process and kept his team in the hunt for Champions League football.
By Ross Cannon
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