The top four battle and the scrap to survive in the Premier League has intensified over the last two games, it’s a war zone out there.
With Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool pulling away at the summit, now is the time of the year when things start to slot into place. Especially at the wrong end of the table.
By now we usually have one or two teams cut adrift in the race to avoid relegation, but up to 11 of the PL’s 20 teams could seriously find themselves in the drop zone on the final day of the season. Being in-form at this point of the campaign is crucial as every game counts.
Each week we put our neck on the line to analyze the strength of each Premier League team, forget about the official league standings (here they are in case you actually do want them) that doesn’t mean squat.
The Power Rankings take into account the strength of schedule, injuries, suspensions, playing well but still losing and plenty of other variables. The W-D-L bracket shows each PL team’s current record and you can now see how many spots each team has moved, up or down, from week-to-week.
Let’s get to it!
Chelsea: Solid as a rock at the top, Chelsea keep grinding out wins but boy, they’re putting their fans through it. The Blues beat Newcastle 3-0, drew with West Brom 1-1 and then clinched a last gasp win over Everton at home last weekend. Mourinho’s men looked incredible at the back. But everyone, the Special One included, wonders where the goals will come from to win his team the title. (18-6-3)
Liverpool: The Reds have been on the rampage and now sit just four points off top spot with 11 games to go. A huge 5-1 win over Arsenal has been followed up by two battling victories against Fulham, 3-2, and Swansea, 4-3. They are now the PL’s top scorers and Brendan Rodgers’ side could be the dark horses for this title. Tricky trip away to Saints this weekend, who have been Liverpool’s bogey team in the last few seasons. (17-5-5)
Arsenal: A mixed bag for the Gunners of late, but they are still up there. That demoralizing 5-1 defeat at Liverpool has been forgotten about and they’ve since drawn 0-0 at home with Man United and then smashed Sunderland 4-1. Arsenal are looking a little jaded and after that damaging UCL loss to Bayern, the stuffing may have been knocked out of their title charge. (18-5-4)
Manchester City: A 0-0 draw away at Norwich and an unconvincing 1-0 home win over Stoke won’t move you up in our rankings. Oh no. City are struggling to click offensively, but with Sergio Aguero back this weekend and the League Cup final offering Manuel Pellegrini the chance for his first piece of silverware in England, will City return to PL action revitalized? They will be playing catch up for a while. What do you prefer, points in the bag or games in hand? (18-3-5)
Manchester United: Okay, we all know United’s struggles continue. But I feel like last weekends win over Crystal Palace could be a real turning point. Wayne Rooney is staying, RVP, Mata and Januzaj all look in-form and despite Champions League woe, I can see United having a storming finish to the PL season. (13-6-8)
Tottenham:A damaging 1-0 loss away at Norwich hurt Spurs’ chances of making the top four. Before that they beat Everton and hammered Newcastle 4-0 away. Tim Sherwood will keep up the battle for the Champions League, but he Spurs are now six points off Liverpool in 4th. (15-5-7)
Everton: So close, but no cigar for the Toffees in their last few games. Roberto Martinez’s men have been solid as ever, but successive 1-0 defeats away to Tottenham and Chelsea show how much they rely on Romelu Lukaku up front. The big Belgian has been out injured, and with a few niggles elsewhere, their squad looks a little thin all of a sudden. (12-9-5)
Southampton: Saints’ rollercoaster season continues, as Maurcio Pochettino’s men saw their eight-game unbeaten run ended by West Ham in a 3-1 defeat last time out. The Argentine manager has had some abuse flying his way from fans after he fielded a weakened side for the FA Cup last 16 match which Saints lost 1-0. With their PL status secured and no real chance to reach the top six, it seemed a little silly for the South Coast club to throw away a good chance for some silverware. (10-9-8)
West Ham: The Hammers’ win over Saints was their fourth-straight as Big Sam’s men are now five games unbeaten. It all stems back to that marvelous defensive display at Stamford Bridge which saw them draw 0-0. West Ham are now seven points above the drop zone and will be around for another season. Plus they now have Andy Carroll to come back from suspension. (8-7-12)
Newcastle: All has not been well up at St. James’ Park, as Alan Pardew’s side lost three-straight and shipped 10 goals without scoring. But a massive 1-0 win over Villa, courtesy of Loic Remy’s injury-time winner, saw scenes of relief and jubilation around the famous stadium. A top 10 finish will be good progress, but after good financial results fans of the Magpies will want to see that cash reinvested into the playing squad. (12-4-11)
Norwich City: Like Newcastle, Norwich badly need a win last time out and they duly got it thanks to Robert Snodgrass’ goal against Spurs. You know what you get with the Canaries, solid defense and they run themselves into the ground. Scoring goals is still an issue, as Norwich are just four points off the drop zone with some tough matches coming up. Work to do, but progress at last in Norfolk. (7-7-13)
Sunderland: The Black Cats have been distracted by cup competitions in recent weeks, as they find themselves facing Man City in the League Cup final this Sunday and then have a FA Cup quarterfinal matchup with Hull City. That resulted in a big loss away at Arsenal. Gus Poyet knows his sides priority must be staying in the PL, how many times have we seen teams at the bottom get to a cup final but then be relegated (Wigan et al.) Not in action this weekend, but wins for teams around them could suddenly plunge Sunderland further into the bottom three. (6-6-14)
Stoke City: No win in three for the Potters, as battling draws with Southampton and Swansea were followed up by a 1-0 loss to Man City. Mark Hughes’ men have reverted to a hybrid between their new fluid style and the old kick and rush mentality. They are just three points off the relegation zone and Stoke need to find goals from somewhere. (6-9-12)
Hull City: Tigers are flying back up the rankings after flirting perilously close with the drop zone after their good start to the campaign slowly evaporated. Two wins in the last three against teams below them have given Hull some breathing space. January signings Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic have started to smash the goals in and look to be shrewd signing from Steve Bruce. The Tigers will be fine as they’re six points clear from the bottom three and in the FA Cup quarters too. (8-6-13)
Crystal Palace: A vital win against West Brom was sandwiched in-between defeats to Arsenal and Man United. The Eagles are no pushovers and I genuinely think they will stay up, but with a great run of form only putting them two points clear of danger. Surely Tony Pulis’ men will go through a sticky patch soon and that could spell danger. That said, I love their new signings and caught up with Joe Ledley recently who is desperate to avoid the drop. (8-2-16)
Swansea City: The Swans have looked like an exciting side again under Garry Monk, as the Rookie manager is getting a good response from his former teammates. A huge 3-0 win in the South Wales derby was followed by a spirited 1-1 draw at Stoke and then a good display in that crazy 4-3 defeat at Liverpool last weekend. Swansea are only four points about the bottom three though, so work to do down in South Wales. (7-7-13)
Aston Villa: The Villans continue to stumble through the 2013-14 PL season, as Paul Lambert’s side are one of the most frustrating teams I’ve ever watched. At times it all clicks into place and the young side look like world-beaters… vs. Newcastle they looked like relegation fodder. Three defeats in their last four has seen Villa slip towards the bottom and confidence looks low. Surely they won’t go down? (7-7-13)
West Brom: Pepe Mel is still searching for his first win as West Brom boss but he has drawn four of his first six matches in charge, all 1-1. Not beating Fulham at home last Saturday shows the Baggies aren’t at the top of their game and there’s said to be some unrest with the methods of the new Spanish boss. Just one win in their last 10 tells the story, West Brom are in trouble. (4-13-10)
Fuham: ‘Trouble’ and ‘Fulham’ have been synonymous all season, as the Cottagers are still rooted to the foot of the table. But only a late equalizer from West Brom prevented new boss Felix Magath from picking up three points on his debut. Fulham looked solid and there’s still hope for the West London club in the relegation battle. Can Magath work some magic? (6-3-18)
Cardiff City: Poor old Ole, what is going on at Cardiff? Just one win since the Norwegian boss arrived in South Wales spells bad news for Vincent Tan’s club. A 4-0 hammering at home to Hull last weekend said it all. Huge game away at Spurs this Sunday. (5-7-15)
Griezmann wins best player award in Spain for last season
Alexis Sanchez was Arsenal’s second-leading scorer as the Gunners finished second in the Premier League, and the South American attacker scored three goals as Chile won its second-straight Copa America, this one on American soil. It’s baffling that he’s not on the list.
N'Golo Kante enjoyed a season as the engine of the best story in Premier League history, manning the midfield for Leicester, and followed it up by helping France reach the EURO 2016 final. Pretty good, right?
Javier Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic were key pieces in Barcelona’s run to the La Liga crown despite being limited by the transfer ban. Mascherano followed it up by captaining Argentina to the Copa America Centenario final, while Rakitic starred alongside Ivan Perisic as Croatia won a tricky EURO 2016 group before falling to eventual winners Portugal.
Harry Kanemay’ve not been a good choice to take corner for England, but he also was one of the best all-around attackers in the world as Tottenham surged into the Top Four of the Premier League.
With four goalkeepers making the cut, it shows that club success is more important than performance. David De Gea‘s season was certainly on the same plane as Buffon, though the latter won the league with Juventus and edged Spain at EURO 2016.
Marcelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and David Silva were also players who succeeded for both club and country and could’ve found their way onto the 30.
— I got 24 on the nose, wrongly guessing that Kante, Kane, Alexis, Mascherano, Rakitic, and Olivier Giroud would make the cut. Giroud led Arsenal and France in scoring, but if Alexis wasn’t going to make it the coiffed Frenchman had no hope.
— Of the six I didn’t get, only one brings me great shame: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should’ve been in the first 15 names on any list, not missing the post entirely. Paulo Dybala is a bit of a shocker from the crew, and Koke is a tricky miss. Luka Modric was our No. 31, while Rui Patricio was our 35. Diego Godin was a bad miss.
— What to learn from this: Atletico Madrid was obviously credited for its return to the UCL final, so Godin and Koke prove that carried a bit more weight than Kante and Giroud making the final with France, and Alexis thriving at the Copa America.
Columbus: 2016 was Gregg Berhalter’s third season in charge in Columbus, and in each of his first two years, Crew SC took a gigantic step forward — from non-playoff side to in the playoffs in 2014; from young, naive playoff team to MLS Cup hosts in 2015 — which meant 2016 was supposed to be the culmination of a truly great revolution in Columbus.
They started the season slow, with no wins in their first five games. But they had done the same thing just 12 months earlier and there they were playing for the Cup in December. The Crew looked to be slowly turning this season’s corner when the Kei Kamara/Federico Higuain thing exploded and effectively ended their season in May.
The big knock on Crew SC last year, at least for me, was that they never seemed to figure out a Plan B — if “hit it long for Kei, he’ll knock it down, and Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram will run onto it and toss the alley-oop back to him inside the six” wasn’t working, you’d already beaten them.
2016 exposed Berhalter, perhaps more than any player on the roster, because of the elongated nature of those struggles — literally the entire season. Finlay (6 goals, 9 assists) and Meram (5 goals, 13 assists) put up fine numbers once again, but they rang hollow for a losing team going nowhere all season long.
Wil Trapp’s age-23 season was completely wasted — he’s no longer “a young player” — and I’d take a long, hard look at Europe this winter if I were him. The defense has been an unmitigated disaster the last two season (53 and 58 goals conceded), mostly due to the all-out attacking nature of Berhalter’s game plans — hint: defending 2-on-4 against counter-attacks almost never ends well. The “other” Kamara, Ola, actually panning out was the saving grace that kept them within a mile of the playoff race.
Portland: Maybe it’s an odd year thing; Portland won the 2015 MLS Cup after claiming the West’s best record in 2013.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Timbers ran out of luck under newly-extended Caleb Porter in his fourth season on the job. This time, no one bailed them out.
Portland came out of nowhere to claim the West’s No. 1 seed in 2013, as Porter engineered an astounding 15 draws including 10 on the road. The tactics and lineup selection helped, but so did the arrivals of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson (pretty important, no?).
The Timbers missed the playoffs by a point in 2014, a 3W-1D end to the season not enough to make up for a horrible start to the season.
The next season saw the Timbers win it all, but not without needing a three-match winning streak to leap ahead of four teams and claim the third-seed (Seattle, LA, and KC all finished two points back). Six games later, they went from almost out to on top of the MLS world.
So what happened this year, with many falling all over ourselves to praise the long-term prospects of a Timbers dynasty? A giant failure. The Timbers failed to win a single road game, tossing aside their strong home field advantage (Portland was 12W-3L-2T at Providence Park).
The Timbers scored the second-most penalties in the league this year, with five, so it’s not like fortune avoided them (The Red Bulls didn’t score one).
But, oh, this was ugly.
Portland took three of its the final 12 points available to it. The Timbers lost big in Vancouver and Houston, two non-playoff destinations. In its last 13 games, Portland lost nine and won four.
The Timbers completed the fewest passes in Major League Soccer, 400 less than the closest competitor and 4,300 behind the league-leading Revs. Portland couldn’t take the ball away, either, with the second-fewest interceptions in the league.
You could even argue that losing 4-1 in Vancouver on Decision Day — a loss to a knocked-out Cascadia Cup rival — makes it worse than Columbus’ season alone. This was awful stuff, albeit schadenfreude for the anti-Porter brigade.
Oh, and they bombed out of a poor CONCACAF Champions League group without a Liga MX or MLS opponent in it.
Every champion has a target on its back but the Timbers managed to essentially bring back all of its key starters from a season ago, despite losing Maxi Urruti. The Timbers were involved in 22 games separated by one goal or less in 2016, with Caleb Porter’s side winning only seven of those contests. Had one more game gone in their favor the Timbers would likely be back in the postseason.
Of the six teams remaining in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, you could argue there are three distinct pairings.
You have red-hot traditional sides in DC United and the New York Red Bulls; There are the big-name driven, deep squads from Toronto FC and New York City FC, and finally the two relative unknowns truly deserving of “wildcard” status in the Philadelphia Union Montreal Impact.
Sure the table tends to tell us who’s who in the pecking order. It’s hard to bet against the Red Bulls seeing they haven’t lost since July 3, and Frank Lampard has somehow quietly been a wrecking ball thanks to dynamite performances from captain David Villa and world-class maestro Andrea Pirlo.
But there are reasons those teams may not be the true favorite to advance to the MLS Cup final, just as there are ways to imagine Philly can punch their way through the East. We’re here to give you both.
Philadelphia Union (6)
Why they’ll win: The young unit might be too green to know it isn’t expected to knock off Toronto in Toronto, or a New York team in New York or New Jersey. Chris Pontius and Tranquillo Barnetta add veteran skill and savvy, while Andre Blake is capable of stealing some of the league’s more terrific strikes.
Why they won’t: Their last win was Aug. 27, and we’re supposed to expect the Union to win on the road at Toronto, RBNY, and then either NYCFC or DC. Nah, dog (though it’d be quite a story and we’d be happy to watch it).
Montreal Impact (5)
Why they’ll win: Didier Drogba may not be mentally in it, but he’s still a fierce competitor who can score with the best of them. By the way, the “best of them” definitely includes Ignacio Piatti. The Argentine has been one of the top players in the league this season, and can take over any game (Yes, even three on the bounce).
Why they won’t: The dysfunction and fall-out from Drogba’s benching permeates the room before match against red-hot DC United, and an average road team fails to meet expectations.
DC United (4)
Why they’ll win: A four-match win streak earned most of DC’s starters a well-deserved rest on Decision Day, and there will be a “Why not us?” cry coming from the DC dressing room. Patrick Nyarko has been a lot of fun to watch. Luciano Acosta is legit as well. Bill Hamid is an excellent shot stopper, and the four-time champion Black-and-Red is overdue for a final, having been absent since beating KC in 2004.
Why they won’t: Let’s be honest, most arguments against DC sound quite political. “Well, they can’t win because of the other guys being so good.” DC doesn’t have the firepower of TFC, NYCFC, and RBNY; Would you bet on them beating two of the above, which they likely would have to? (Actually, kinda).
Toronto FC (3)
Why they’ll win: Frankly, this is the best defensive team in the East, with a minimum of three game attacking breakers in Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. Imports Drew Moor and Clint Irwin aren’t scared of the spotlight, and Will Johnson will be putting on for his city. And they’re good away from BMO Field. This could be TFC’s season, y’all.
Why they won’t: This is Toronto’s 10th season, and happens to be the first one in which it won more matches than it lost. TFC’s debut home match comes on Wednesday evening, and there’s something to be said for experience. While some of its players have plenty, the club does not possess much at all.
New York City FC (2)
Why they’ll win: One of only two teams (Toronto) to finish their road schedule with a .500 record, Patrick Vieira has been able to get the best out of the superstars and the lesser-known members of NYC’s squad. Tactically, we’re not sure there’s another coach in the East with his acumen.
Why they won’t: It’s also Vieira’s first playoffs as a manager, and the whole franchise hasn’t done that dance, either. They have one win in five combined matches against RBNY and TFC.
New York Red Bulls
Why they’ll win: Frankly, as stated above, because they don’t lose. Jesse Marsch hasn’t overseen a loss in three-and-a-half months, has two legit claimants to MVP honors in Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, and have been reinforced by one of the deepest Academy production lines in MLS.
Why they won’t: New York won just three road matches all year, even if it managed 7 draws away from Red Bull Arena. On top of that, this is year No. 20 of MLS, and founding members RBNY have zero titles and one final appearance. Those ghosts could come creeping up to the door.