With Chelsea having seemingly won the Premier League tittle back in September the most exciting race in the EPL this season has been for fourth place and the UEFA Champions League spot that comes with a top four finish. Going into the season everyone assumed it would be the usual cast of contenders vying for the fourth spot–Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Everton. The season has proven to be anything but predictable, as a poor start from Everton took them out of the equation, and upstart Southampton made a real claim at stealing one of the top four spots until falling out very recently.
As the Premier League comes back from the international break the top of the table currently looks like this…
…with Manchester United five points clear of Liverpool and six clear of Southampton and Tottenham for the coveted fourth spot. As the business end of the season gets going this week, let’s take a look at the games that will have a major impact on the race for fourth place.
Everton vs. Southampton
At this point Southampton is playing with house money this season. Predicted by almost everyone to get relegated after losing so many top players last summer Southampton stunned the world by starting the season in the top four and then refusing to vacate the position. Just a few weeks ago this club was sitting in third place, before a dip in form finally saw them drop out of the top four.
The Saints are dealing with the news that goalkeeper Fraser Forester will miss the rest of the season due to injury, however, the club still boasts one of the best defensive records in the league and should be able to cope. At this point even with a win vs. Everton their chances of slipping into the top four are slim, but no one expected them to even be as high as sixth to begin with.
Burnley vs. Tottenham
There have only been two consistent things about Tottenham this season. The first is team inconsistency and the second is Harry Kane. Since finally being given a chance in the first team back in November, Kane has only gone on to lead the Premier League in goals. Not goals during that timeframe, but goals over the entire season.
Unfortunately for Tottenham the last word you can use to describe their form is consistency and they now face a Burnley side, who despite being stuck in a relegation dogfight, come in with confidence after having beaten Manchester City in their last home match. Tottenham need the three points and Turf Moor will not be an easy place to get it, but you never when Sir Harold Kane will rescue Spurs next.
Manchester United vs. Aston Villa
Manchester United welcome Aston Villa to Old Trafford for a 3pm local time match, which is also known as “this game isn’t even big enough to get moved and be shown on TV in the UK.” Back in the Sir Alex Ferguson day, the term for this match for United would be “a walk in the park.”
Under Louis van Gaal though there is no such thing as a walk in the park for United, who have become prone to following good performances with outings that look like they’ve completely forgotten how to play football. Things finally have looked like they may have turned a corner recently as the team put together terrific performances in back to back matches vs. Tottenham and Liverpool before the international break.
Questions remain about how United will come out in this game. Colombian striker Radamel Falcao was back to his scoring ways while playing for his country. Will Louis van Gaal re-insert Falcao into the team, or leave him on the bench and stick with the team that has played great over the last two games. United captain Wayne Rooney is on record saying if United don’t beat Villa then the win over Liverpool means absolutely nothing, and he’s right as United find themselves with a great chance to widen the gap between them and Liverpool or even overtake Arsenal and move up to third in the table.
Arsenal vs. Liverpool
The biggest match of the weekend and the one that will shake up the table regardless of how it ends. Arsenal currently sit just one point ahead of United in third place and six ahead of Liverpool, meaning a Liverpool win would put the reds just three points behind the Gunners and could see the Gunners drop to fourth place depending on what United do. A win for Arsenal would keep them in at least third place, with a chance to move into second depending on what Manchester City does, but more importantly would give Manchester United the chance to move eight points clear of Liverpool with just seven games remaining.
Arsenal come into the game riding great form, while Liverpool remain a question mark. On one hand, Liverpool haven’t lost to a team not named Manchester United since November, on the other hand, only time will tell if the recent loss to United was just a blip on the radar, or if the Reds are about to embark on another late season collapse like they did last year. Liverpool will be without Steven Gerrard (possibly a blessing in disguise) and Martin Skrtel as both are suspended three games due to their actions in the Manchester United fixture.
A draw does each of these teams no favors as it would allow Manchester United (pending a win) to gain points on both clubs and put them both in vulnerable positions. This means that each team will be going all out for the win, which means we could have one of the best matches of the season on Saturday.