24 hours from right now, the Premier League’s top-four race could be clear as crystal… just as likely, though, Sunday’s pair of games, featuring three-fourths of the four-team battle for two UEFA Champions League places, could leave the league table far less clear than its already muddled state.
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Liverpool vs. Southampton — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com
The math surrounding Liverpool’s Champions League chase is extremely simple: if they win their final three games of the season, they can finish no worse than fourth; so much as two points dropped over their final three games, and the door is opened for Manchester United (who trail by four points, but have a game in hand) to leapfrog Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds. The run-in begins Sunday, when Claude Puel‘s 12th-place Southampton visit Anfield.
With just one defeat from their last nine PL games, only Tottenham Hotspur have won more points than Liverpool during that period. Had it not been the disastrous start to the 2017 calendar year (zero wins from five games, and just three total points), the Reds would be right alongside Tottenham right now, battling for a second-place finish behind runaway leaders Chelsea. The past is the past, though, and Klopp is keen to finish his first full season as Liverpool manager inside the top-four.
“The plan is for Sunday that we can use Anfield,” Klopp said when appraising his team’s top-four chances. “I know how it is, for some people it’s maybe a nervy situation and they bite on their (nails) and think, ‘hopefully, hopefully, hopefully it can happen.’
“But we need to be brave, we need to enjoy the game, we need to play football, we need to defend very serious and if possible, to use the crowd, creating a special atmosphere.”
Arsenal vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com
As stated above, Man United, having to make up a four-point gap, need a bit of help if they’re to finish in the top-four. Arsenal, on the other hand, must overcome a nine-point deficit (with two games in hand) to Liverpool in order to extend Arsene Wenger‘s streak of 20 straight seasons finishing fourth or better.
In a strange twist of priorities, Jose Mourinho has decided to focus his side’s full energy and efforts on winning the Europa League, rather than chasing a top-four finish which he says the Red Devils “lost [the] chance to fight for” in drawing 1-1 with Swansea City last weekend. Thus, the lineup the Portuguese puts out to face Arsenal might just be full of reserve and academy players.
“The players who have accumulated lots of minutes are not going to play next weekend,” Mourinho told BBC without naming names. “We are not going to Arsenal to say, ‘beat us 5-0 or 6-0.’ We are going there to fight for a result but it’s impossible. I cannot do it another way.
“If Celta were playing with their best team and, if Celta were fighting for important things in La Liga, we would go (into the second leg) in the same circumstances but I cannot play the same team that played here (at Estadio Baladios) and then we play again next Thursday. I think in the last match against Swansea, we lost our last chance to fight for the top four so I’m going to rest players.”
INJURIES: Arsenal — OUT: Granit Xhaka (ankle), Lucas Perez (fitness), Santi Cazorla (achilles); RETURNING: Shkodran Mustafi (thigh) | Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Marcos Rojo (knee), Luke Shaw (foot), Marouane Fellaini (suspension), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (shoulder); QUESTIONABLE: Marcus Rashford (knee)