With both Liverpool and Manchester City making impressive starts to their respective Premier League campaigns, the race to reach the other two highly coveted Champions League places is heating up. Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea have all lost recently, making the chase even more intriguing.
Both Liverpool and Manchester City have excelled in recent weeks, with the former putting in a gutsy performance to overcome a determined Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge, and the latter putting eight past Watford in the type of breathtaking performance we have come to expect from Pep Guardiola’s team. Nonetheless, it is early days this season, with questions still to be asked of the top two sides. Liverpool rely on a core group of star players and so injuries could have a bigger impact on them than their rivals to the east. City remain vulnerable against teams who play a high-speed, possession-based game, and who are able to withstand their dogged pressing, as Norwich recently showed in a shock 3-2 victory. Still, it is clear for anyone to see that there is a gulf in quality between Liverpool and City and the other teams competing for royalties this year, and it’s hard to imagine any situation in which they don’t make up the top two spots come May.
This understandably begs the question: of the remaining top six teams, who will manage to make the top four? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United team started the season with a wonderful 4-0 victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford, but since then have struggled to find any kind of consistency, losing 2-0 away to West Ham this weekend. For a man that started his tenure at Old Trafford with eight straight wins in all competitions, he has failed to implement a playing style that brings out the best of the talent they have. The signing of Harry Maguire has bolstered the defence, but serious questions still remain about the role of Paul Pogba and the effectiveness of Marcus Rashford as a solo striker. United will hope to put a string of victories together and build some momentum, but for a team lacking fresh faces, their slow start to the season should be a source of worry. A top four finish will be some task.
The fortunes of Tottenham are similar to those of United. Mauricio Pochettino’s attractive style of football almost brought them European glory last year, but his seemingly tried-and-tested methods appear under strain this term. Tottenham, despite the presence of leaders like Harry Kane, still seem to struggle too often in big games when the rub of the green may not fall exactly their way, as shown by their defeat to Leicester. This is a cause for concern for a team who may well have the best eleven in the league bar Liverpool and City.
For Chelsea, currently in eleventh place, this year was always going to be a transitional one. Put together a transfer ban and a manager seeking to blood the club’s array of young talent, and it’s hard to determine what success would look like for Chelsea this year. There have been some promising signs, notably a 5-2 away victory against a tricky Wolves side, but the season has also been riddled with inconsistency and problems at the back. Reaching the top four would be a fantastic achievement for Lampard’s men, but at this stage is most perhaps slightly beyond a team that is still searching for its identity.
Arsenal and Leicester are the other two sides with the best chances of making the Champions League places this year. Leicester have found new life under Brendan Rodgers, with dynamic performances from the likes of James Maddison and Jamie Vardy. They also have the benefit of not playing European football mid-week, as well as reduced expectation from pundits and fans. Doubts about consistency as the season wears on are undoubtedly valid, but as of yet, the third-placed Foxes have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their prospects.
Arsenal remain a bit of an unknown quantity. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette they have as deadly a strike duo as any team in the league, but the recklessness of their defence and absence of a clear leader still leaves them with some big issues to resolve if the top four is to be reached. Unai Emery clearly has a vision of how he wants his side to play, but Arsenal still have a tendency to capitulate in big games. Whether this happens again this season is yet to be determined.
Plenty remains of the 2019/20 season, and we can expect the inevitable twists and turns which make the Premier League so exciting and unique. Liverpool and Manchester City will run each other close for the top spot, whilst the group of teams below them will take part in an arguably more exciting dog race for the top four.
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