Premier League run-in: Arsenal and Tottenham prepare for Champions League play-offs as title race goes all the way
ith the final international break of the season over, it is now a sprint to the finish as the Premier League nears a thrilling conclusion.
It’s all to be played at both ends of the table, while the fight for European football is also still very much alive with what appears to be a pivotal North London derby yet to be rescheduled.
We’ve taken a look at the key moments that could shape how the season unfolds over the past few weeks.
Race to be champions
The title decider waits as the battle is about to unfold again
The last time Manchester City and Liverpool were neck and neck in the title race, the difference between success and failure narrowed to 11 millimetres.
Just 11mm and John Stones’ desperate lunge to snag Sadio Mane’s goal-bound effort virtually behind the line separated the two greatest managers of their generation. It is therefore impossible to overstate the importance of their confrontation at the Etihad in nine days.
It’s a breakthrough title in every sense of the word. Whichever team leaves the field after 90 minutes with the advantage will almost certainly be crowned champions.
That’s how fine the margin for error is in a race that seemed almost over at the turn of the year.
Big credit must go to Liverpool for even making it a contest, because when Rodri’s 93rd-minute goal secured a 2-1 win over Arsenal on January 1, City moved 11 points to the top and were already declared champion.
Pep Guardiola’s side simply don’t let such leads slip away, so it’s remarkable that Jurgen Klopp managed to move within a point of the defending champions, not to mention realistic ambitions of winning an unprecedented four-fold.
But the German will know that anything other than victory in the two teams’ meeting could see his title hopes go up in smoke.
City have the easiest run-in, with a trip to West Ham in the penultimate game of the season their trickiest game on paper. Liverpool, meanwhile, have emotional clashes with Manchester United and Everton, as well as a home game against Tottenham.
But the fact is that City and Liverpool are perfectly capable of getting maximum points by the end of the season, which is why their head-to-head is so critical.
Battle for fourth place
The North London Derby is now a Champions League play-off
The battle for fourth could come down to the yet to be revamped North London derby, which is shaping up to be a play-off for Champions League football.
Arsenal and hosts Tottenham expect the game to be rescheduled for the penultimate week of the season and it promises to be a titanic clash, with the Gunners currently three points clear of their neighbors with one game less.
Mikel Arteta’s side are growing at the right time, with players such as Bukayo Saka in fine form, and they have been more fluid and consistent than Spurs since the start of the year. Spurs’ top-down form was bordering on farce but they are clearly improving.
Both sides face tricky returns to action, with Spurs hosting Newcastle, one of their bogey sides, and Arsenal at Crystal Palace, managed by Gunners legend Patrick Vieira. On paper, Spurs have the easiest run-in, with Arsenal at Chelsea for their game in hand and Manchester United and West Ham yet to come.
While the Hammers are surely too far to break into the top four, Manchester United could still spoil the party.
Watford pins survival hopes after difficult Everton break-in
After posting losses of over £110million for the third consecutive season, Everton won’t want to think about the prospect of a lifetime in the Championship.
They remain on a solid footing, thanks to the support of their owner Farhad Moshiri, but relegation from the Premier League would only worsen their financial difficulties after battling the impact of Covid-19.
Everton are currently 17th, three points ahead of Watford in 18th and with two games less. Burnley have played the same number of games as the Toffees but are four points behind 19th. Norwich, sitting lowest on 17 points, look dead and buried.
Everton are safe at the moment, but manager Frank Lampard will know the break-in looks incredibly tough, as they have games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester (twice), Liverpool, Manchester United and West Ham. Next Wednesday’s clash against Burnley looks vital.
Everton’s tough games will give Watford hope that they can stay put. Roy Hodgson is a survival expert and Ismaila Sarr’s return to fitness is a timely boost. If Emmanuel Dennis can regain the form he showed at the start of the season, the Hornets could be in business.
Brentford appear to be out of the relegation fight as they currently sit 15th, on 30 points.
However, some poor results after this international break could see them sucked in again. Leeds, a place below Brentford, are in the same boat.
But for Burnley, Everton and Watford, the race for survival is well and truly on – and only one of them seems to be celebrating in May.