Premier League top four battle: Locks, contenders, and pretenders

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With the winter transfer window over and the Premier League table taking a more permanent shape, it’s becoming much clearer who will be in what position come the end of the season, but there are still plenty of questions to answer.

Just three points separate spots 3 through 6, and the 2-7 spacing is 10 points, which sounds like a thick pad but is relatively thin. With that in mind, it’s time to scrub down the standings and see who will be in serious contention for a Champions League place and who is likely to fall out. First, a look at the current positions:

1. Chelsea: 56pts, +33 GD
2. Manchester City: 49pts, +23 GD
3. Southampton: 45pts, +21 GD
4. Manchester United: 44pts, +17 GD
5. Tottenham Hotspur: 43pts, +6 GD
6. Arsenal: 42pts, +18 GD
7. Liverpool: 39pts, +6 GD
8. West Ham: 37pts, +8 GD
9. Swansea City: 34pts, -3 GD
10. Stoke City: 33pts, -2 GD

So where will everyone finish? There are only about seven teams with a real shot at finishing in the top four. West Ham and Swansea are riding strong starts as things have fallen back down to Earth, while Stoke is just trying to grind its way to a top-10 finish.

That being said, all the rest have a legitimate shot at finishing top four, but it’s obviously not as simple as that. It would seem like at this point, there are four teams battling for two Champions League spots. Let’s break down the table further.

The Locks:

Chelsea – The Blues aren’t just a lock for the top four, they’re the clear favorite for the top four. They have been aided by luck along the way, with few injury problems and nobody stepping up as a strong challenger. Every time Chelsea stumbles, it seems the rest of the pack does as well. However, make no mistake: Chelsea has by far the most complete starting eleven. The only way the Blues will be toppled is through either injury or suspension. Jose Mourinho’s biggest weakness this year is his depth, but it hasn’t been seriously tested as of yet. The aging central defensive partnership of John Terry and Gary Cahill has an emerging understudy in Kurt Zouma, but there’s little outside of him. Nemanja Matic’s insurance policy is the combination of Ramires and John Obi Mikel, a serious drop-off.

Manchester City – While Manuel Pellegrini has failed to pounce on the openings Chelsea has left him, Manchester City still remains the clear favorites for runner-up and therefore the closest to a lock the top four has outside the league leader. The addition of Wilfried Bony – once he returns from the African Cup of Nations – will be a strong boost to the squad depth. They still have a shot at the top spot, and Chelsea will almost surely leave them one or two more ways back, but the room for error is nearing absolute zero.

The Contenders:

Southampton – While the drum has been beaten most of the season as the Saints continue to improve, it’s still astonishing that this is even being written. It’s no guarantee that Southampton finishes in a Champions League place – they don’t look as dominant as they did in 2014, and they sit a meager two ticks from falling out – but a European spot is almost a guarantee and the Champions League seems like a real possibility. The wins over Manchester United and Arsenal in January proved to be talismanic victories, but they still have to travel to Chelsea and Manchester City before the season is through. Otherwise, their schedule can be considered somewhat light down the stretch, and Southampton looks poised for one of the most surprising top four finishes in decades.

Arsenal – If they can get out of their own heads, the Gunners would be in the top four by now. Mental blocks continue to plague Arsenal, but if they can get world-class players like Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker to quit spending time in la-la land, it will be Champions League again. Things are dicey, and their current position no doubt has fans sweating. It still seems like they have the talent and ability to make the climb, and they’re just two points back of fourth. The North London derby loss stings, and if one loss could bring down any team, that’d be Arsenal. But their schedule looks to be full of points for the taking, and a Champions League knockout draw of Monaco on the horizon could be a potential confidence-builder as well.

Tottenham Hotspur – They’re the team firmly on the bubble to me. Spurs has ridden the Hurri-Kane and Eriksen Earthquake all the way to the moon and back, and still sit a point shy. Can they squeeze anything more out of those two star players to crack the top four? Mark your calendars for March 15, because a Premier League date at Old Trafford could be where we learn of Tottenham’s true credentials. Are they for real? Or will they finish inches shy yet again?

The Pretenders:

Manchester United – Sorry, Red Devil fans. This year is not the year. Louis van Gaal has brought a positive influence to Old Trafford after a disastrous season, but the roster is just not good enough. It’s fantastic that the Dutch boss has steered the club into the top four at this current time – especially given the insane amount of injuries – but the margin of error is too thin for performances like they had against West Ham on Sunday. Players like Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney, and David de Gea are the type you build a squad around, but those around them – mainly in the back line – are not of Champions League quality, and the overhaul continues into the coming summer. Much like when a team is relegated, the road back to the Champions League after a miss is a long, arduous one, and it would appear this year there are too many holes for van Gaal to plug, and their frailty will be their downfall. Also, consider these remaining fixtures from March and May still to navigate: vs Tottenham, at Liverpool, vs. Manchester City, at Chelsea, at Everton, vs. Arsenal.

Liverpool – Liverpool’s season has seen a Dortmund-like regression (obviously not to that degree). The Daniel Sturridge injury problems are clearly part of the problem, but Brendan Rodgers has baffled with his tactics at times and summer buys such as Mario Balotelli and Dejan Lovren have proven expensive mistakes. Even new purchases such as Lazar Markovic and Emre Can have been misused and had less of an impact than expected. Can is now being used in defense, which has surprisingly worked out better than that might sound for a midfielder, but the hole is too big and the attack remains thin even with Sturridge back and a revitalized Coutinho. They could end up jumping one or two spots, which would be a resounding success given the start of the year, but ultimately the top four is too far away.

Prediction:

Here’s how I think the final standings will look:

1. Chelsea
2. Manchester City
3. Arsenal
4. Southampton
5. Tottenham
6. Manchester United
7. Liverpool

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hide from the hoard of angry Manchester United fans outside my window.