Premier League run-in, race for the top four – How will four go into two?

Liverpool

Run-in

Liverpool have not scored against Southampton in three games this season. Trips to West Ham usually coincide with Andy Carroll’s first game and goal in months and a subsequent campaign to get him an England call-up. But if Liverpool fail to beat Middlesbrough at Anfield on the last day they do not deserve the Champions League.

Current mood

Erratic. Weirdly, they seem calmer on the road than Anfield. They have dug out wins at tough venues, but then self-destructed, suffering momentarily paralysis in front of their own anxious supporters against Crystal Palace. The win at Watford has restored hope, but Liverpool’s fan base remains psychologically scarred having narrowly missed out on so many targets in recent years.

What’s holding them back?

Injuries. To lose Sadio Mane at such a key stage was dreadful luck. So too when Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana were absent. Captain Jordan Henderson has missed most of the season. A full strength, Liverpool would have gone closer to the title. Now they are dragging themselves to the finish.

The one man key to their hopes is…

Adam Lallana

Coutinho is the obvious choice, but Lallana transforms how Liverpool play. He is the trigger for the high pressing game, forcing opposition defenders into mistakes. That allows Coutinho and Firmino to become more penetrative. If Klopp can get Lallana, Coutinho and Firmino on the pitch again it is a game-changer.

Adam Lallana
Adam Lallana has a great relationship with Jurgen Klopp CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

The cost of missing out would be…

Psychologically and financially as traumatic as losing last season’s Europa League final. Liverpool deserve to be where they are with three games to go. It would have been easier for them but for a touch of misfortune and a little bit of self-destruction.

The club has spent too little time in the Champions League and needs to restore its place among the elite. It remains to be seen if they attract players of Virgil Van Dijk’s calibre even if they finish in the top four. They will have no chance if they don’t make it.

Manchester City

Run-in

With three games at the Eithad, the fixture list looks generous for Pep Guardiola. But Palace arrive this weekend still needing a win to guarantee safety and they have the ammunition to cause problems. Leicester and West Brom might already be in holiday mode. City should be confident of finishing third.

Current mood

Underwhelmed by a season which promised so much but can now deliver no more than a par score. If City do not qualify for the Champions League it would be an extraordinary failure. Nobody of sound mind believes Manuel Pellegrini is a better coach than Pep Guardiola, but plenty are whispering not much has improved yet.

Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola’s first season is in danger of being a bust CREDIT: REUTERS

What’s holding them back?

Guardiola has argued the injury to Gabriel Jesus was significant, but such complaints sound hollow when you have Sergio Aguero at your disposal. The reality is this has been a transitional year, Guardiola implementing a new style of play. His players are still trying to adjust and this has bred inconsistent results. There is view life at City is more complicated than it needs to be.

The one man key to their hopes is…

Vincent Kompany

City always look like they will score. When Kompany is fit they have the solidity they need in defence. Without him, despite a massive outlay on defenders, their vulnerability is evident. Guardiola may suggest Jesus’s return is pivotal, but they have given away too many daft goals. If Kompany plays for the rest of the season, they will be fine.

Vincent Kompany
Vincent Kompany (right) has a history of injury problems CREDIT: REUTERS

The cost of missing out would be…

A major inquest and broad debate between those who regard any criticism of Guardiola as akin to blasphemy and others who believe – despite Pep’s undisputed greatness – he and his admirers were condescending to ignore the peculiar demands of English football.

It may not be better – or higher quality – here. But it is very different to Spain and Germany. Ignoring that, failing to adjust, smacks of tactical arrogance.

Manchester United

Run-in

The toughest of those chasing fourth; they have a trip to Arsenal followed by Tottenham away. United will probably need four points from those two games. On the flip side, Jose Mourinho is never better than when defying expectations. United may prefer this challenge to a routine home game.

Current mood

Torn between focusing on domestic or European matters. Their (possible) three remaining games in the Europa League look less daunting than the four in the Premier League. Win in Europe and they will be in the Champions League, enabling them to settle for 5th or 6th. Mourinho will obviously want both routes secured but they will be thankful for the added security.

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho relishes a siege mentality CREDIT: AFP

What’s holding them back?

Injuries and fixture congestion. There is a suspicion Mourinho has made more of this than necessary, of course. For the best part of 30 years the demands of fighting on all fronts proved no obstacle to Old Trafford dominance, but Jose misses no chance to create a siege mentality. The injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic was bad luck, however.

The one man key to their hopes is…

Marcus Rashford

With Zlatan out, goalscoring is United’s problem. Rashford now has a more central role and is demonstrating his potential in flashes. His maturity belies his age, but he must grow up even swifter if he is going to lead the line in a European semi-final and final – as well as at the Emirates and White Hart Lane.

Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford could benefit from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury CREDIT: PA

The cost of missing out would be…

A second consecutive season without Champions League football is inconceivable at Old Trafford. Mourinho believes he belongs on that stage, as do his most expensive signings.

Mourinho will offer several mitigating circumstances should his side fail. Many will buy into his theories, but it will add to the pressure next season. For him to miss out once, narrowly, would be excusable but it would make qualification a minimum acceptable requirement in a year’s time.

Arsenal

Run-in

Tricky. Away fixtures at Stoke City and Southampton are testing, even if the opposition is in that comfortable mid-table pack. Beating relegated Sunderland at home should be a formality but dropped points feel likely against both Everton and Manchester City.

Current mood

Deeply uncertain and lacking in confidence. From putting together a 19-match unbeaten run before Christmas, they have lost half of their last 16 games and seem desperate for the season to end.

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger’s future is still in the balance CREDIT: REUTERS

What’s holding them back?

The failure to resolve uncertainty over key players and the manager has had a gradually corrosive fate once the team came under pressure. Arsene Wenger’s situation has created an excuse for misfiring players and Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s performances have dipped badly.

The one man key to their hopes is…

Alexis Sanchez

He has scored 19 Premier League goals this season and is the best hope to inspire them to an increasingly-unlikely positive finish. Failing that, Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott must step up.

Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez is Arsenal’s best player CREDIT: AP

The cost of missing out would be…

There is the financial hit of around £20-£30 million but that is less essential now given the enhanced domestic television income. It makes attracting players the wider issue, although other big clubs have shown over recent seasons that not playing in the Champions League can actually be a blessing domestically.

Arsenal’s squad has certainly repeatedly failed to maintain a push across every competition, particularly when they have so consistently also made the knock-out phase of the Champions League.

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Panos Sfaelos

Journalist - Chief Editor

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