NEWS

Who will win the Champions League race?

February 7, 2018

With the Premier League title looking certain to end up in the hands of Manchester City, the rest of the leading sides have three Champions League places to fight over - and it is gearing up to be a close battle, with plenty of twists and turns yet to come.  

Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal are the teams in realistic contention, with all but Arsenal also involved in this year's blue riband European competition. 

This means the teams are all fighting on two fronts, as winning the Champions League would rescue a team not qualifying via their league position. Indeed, it's exactly what happened to Chelsea in 2012 after they finished sixth but conquered Europe.

Arsenal could also make it should they finish outside the top four if they win the Europa League. It's a risky route because it ultimately comes down to one game, but also a glorious one that brings a major trophy. It's exactly how Manchester United qualified for this year's Champions League, and Liverpool would have done so the previous year had they not lost the final to Sevilla.

However, if one assumes none of these teams will win the Champions League, or that if an English side does it is a team already qualifying - then the last third of the Premier League season will become utterly crucial. Fans booking corporate hospitality to see a game featuring one of these clubs will be seeing a team playing with a lot at stake. 

Manchester United appear the best placed to seal their spot. With 56 points from 26 games, they would be title contenders in most seasons. Instead, they are tucked in behind neighbours City and while they will also be thinking ahead about how they can close the gap next season, the team is five points clear of Liverpool in third and six in front of Chelsea. 

Jose Mourinho's teams usually finish in the same position they are in after a dozen games and that seems the best bet now. With January signing Alexis Sanchez adding a new dimension to their attack, it would be a big surprise if they finished lower than second. 

Below the Manchester clubs, the situation gets much tighter, and there are plenty of big matches coming up that could have a key influence on the outcome.

However, Liverpool are one of those teams for whom the strength of opponents appears to be of little importance. 

In January, they earned countless plaudits for their fearless pressing game against Manchester City that earned them a 4-3 victory, the first domestic defeat all season for Pep Guardiola's men. Yet they followed this with a 1-0 defeat against relegation-threatened Swansea City, followed by an FA Cup exit at home to struggling West Bromwich Albion.
After that, however, they were seconds away from beating Spurs at Anfield before being denied by Harry Kane's penalty. 

Liverpool remain outstanding in attack, but can Mo Salah's brilliance make up for a defence that, even with the £75 million January capture of Virgil van Dyk, remains shaky? 

At Chelsea, everything looks shaky just now. Manager Antonio Conte was the toast of the town after leading the club to the Premier League crown in his first season, but as Jose Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri will confirm, that will not protect him this season. 

With just two wins since the turn of the year, a Carabao Cup semi-final loss to Arsenal, heavy defeats at home to Bournemouth and away to Watford, upcoming away trips to both Manchester clubs and a Champions League tie against a rampant Barcelona, Chelsea's season is in danger of capsizing. Not only is Conte looking the most vulnerable coach around, but Chelsea are the team in the top four most at risk of falling out of it.

Across London, Spurs and Arsenal will be waiting to pounce. For Tottenham, the season has been a curious one. Hailed as potential title challengers, they, like the rest, have been left in the slipstream of Manchester City. 

They also suffered from the unfamiliarity of playing 'home' games at Wembley, a problem that has now clearly been solved. A recent victory there against Manchester United confirmed their home form is fine and the draw at Anfield may also be crucial. Nonetheless, having spent years gradually shedding their reputation as a soft side, their away form against the other top teams remains a weakness. 

At least with Harry Kane remaining prolific, Spurs have top quality to rely on. The form of Dele Ali has dropped away this season, yet they remain on course, if nothing else, to finish above Arsenal. 

For fans of Arsene Wenger's team, that annual finish above Spurs - the day it gets confirmed being "St Totteringham's Day" - has been a rare treat in recent years, but even that went out of the window last season. 

Questions remain about Wenger and the way the club is run remain, yet the club arguably had an outstanding transfer window. Sanchez may have gone to Manchester United, but in order to get his man under the noses of City, Jose Mourinho had to trade Henrikh Mkhitaryan, an attacking midfielder of rare talent who never quite found his feet at Old Trafford, yet may thrive in the fluent attacking system he will now play in. 

With the other player whose contract was set to expire in May - Mesut Ozil - signing a new deal, plus the capture of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Olivier Giroud went to Chelsea, Wenger may feel he now has a team that can at least push hard for the top four. 

A north London Derby on Saturday (February 10th) offers an immediate opportunity to reel Spurs in, but what may really count is experience; for all the criticism he has faced, on more than one occasion Wenger has steered his side through a strong run to snatch fourth spot when all has seemed beyond them.

With five teams chasing three places, this could be a battle that goes right to the wire. 

Image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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