It’s almost like the Premier League’s other top four contenders feel empathy for Liverpool’s injury madness and have decided to give the champs a puncher’s chance to return to the discussion.
Before Saturday’s meeting of Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates, I wrote it wouldn’t be surprising to see the winner rise into the top four given its quality and the quality of its upcoming opponents. I went as far as to write that Liverpool would make the top four if it won, which it did in a convincing manner against the tame and toothless Gunners.
[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]
The international break may be blamed for some of this, but the Premier League’s perceived big boys were largely poor on the weekend.
- It started Saturday, when Christian Pulisic’s early goal for Chelsea quickly yielded to a Thiago Silva red card and woeful West Brom grew its season goal output by 25 percent with a 5-2 beatdown of the 10-man Blues. Thomas Tuchel would be even angrier if he knew what lay ahead for the PL weekend.
- Man City and Leicester both had goals ruled out by the assistant referee’s flag, but it’s easy to forget that given Pep Guardiola’s men won 2-0 and it could’ve been four or five for the visitors.
- Liverpool ran all over Arsenal, and Jurgen Klopp’s men are the clear victors of the weekend. In retrospect, a draw might’ve had both sides thinking they’d move into the top four by the end of the season.
- Spurs apparently thought two goals would be enough to beat Newcastle and stopped playing after claiming a 2-1 lead, drawing when Arsenal loanee Joe Willock potted home late.
- There’s a world where second place is in play, too, but Manchester United rebounded from a concession to Brighton and Harry Maguire got more rub of the VAR green to move the Red Devils 11 points clear of fifth with eight matches left on their docket.
So what’s it all mean?
Well, if you’re Carlo Ancelotti, your already linguistic eyebrows may have morphed into exclamation points, while David Moyes’ eyes might be the size of grapefruits, because West Ham and Everton’s big Monday opportunities have found a new level.
Premier League top four cheat sheet
Third-place Leicester City has a five-point lead on fourth-place Chelsea’s 51 points, but both West Ham and Everton would reach 52 points by claiming their matches-in-hand. With Leicester points-per-game at 1.86 and Chelsea’s at 1.7, let’s set the target for fourth place at around 1.79 points per game, or 68 points.
West Ham, to be fair, has a bit more room for error than the Toffees, who are going to need those matches-in-hand given a schedule that includes six of 10 remaining matches coming against fellow teams inside the Top 11.
We’ve included Leeds and Arsenal in this mix as well despite their maximum point totals capping at 66 because at some point this will become a top-seven story and there’s reason to believe they could make a run up the table.
Barring some complex math errors, the magic number for a top-four place is currently 75 points, a figure only six teams can still hit this season. The three Premier League clubs who max out at 75 or 76 points have some matches against each other, so only one of the trio can hit that magic mark.
So who controls their own destiny?
Man City: Clinches top four place with three more points regardless of what anyone else does. Clinches Premier League title with seven more points with same scenarios.
Manchester United: Clinches top four place with 19 more points.
Leicester City: Clinches top four place with 20 more points.
Everton: Guaranteed top four spot by winning out.
West Ham: Guaranteed top four spot by winning out.
Chelsea: Guaranteed top four spot by winning out.
Everyone else cannot accumulate enough points by winning out. They either cannot claim enough points to guarantee a top four point total or do have enough direct matches with teams above them where a win would lower the opponent’s maximum total to a point that winning out would surpass that opponent.
Who has the likeliest and least likely paths to the top four?
Happening (Class A): Manchester City
Even with schedule congestion, the idea of Man City essentially losing out while four other teams win out is bonkers, even for this world.
Likely (Class B): Leicester City and Manchester United
Manchester United has a demanding schedule, but four more wins get them to 69 points and that’s expected from their fixture list. Leicester would need 12 points to get to our target of 68 and their schedule is soft as a grape (with James Maddison returning, to boot). If the Foxes are going to collapse for a second-straight season, they could still rescue things by beating direct rivals down the stretch. Look out for their final three.
Will come down to the six-pointers (Class C): Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham
This probably reads silly given what Liverpool has gone through this year, but the midfield and Alisson Becker have shielded Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak long enough for the young duo to find a bit of a groove, and the Reds are going to reap points from their easy Premier League fixture list even if they go on a long Champions League run.
West Ham fans are shaking their fists at being put in Class C considering they’ll be in fourth with a win at Wolves on Monday, plus they don’t have schedule congestion and have a 5-2-2 record against their nine remaining opponents. One of those losses is to Newcastle on opening day. Leicester, Chelsea, and Everton are all headed to West Ham and the Irons would need at least seven of nine points there with one of the wins being over Chelsea.
Tottenham‘s lack of fixture congestion after a shocking exit from the Europa League paints a straight-forward picture, and you might’ve penciled Spurs into the top four had they not looked disinterested at times after taking the lead back from Newcastle on Sunday. Could their fate come down to the final day at the King Power Stadium against Leicester City?
Chelsea might have a points-per-game of 1.70 this season, but that figure jumps to 2.2 since Thomas Tuchel took the reins. Even if the Blues fall apart and lose their tough final four matches, they could still enter that stretch with 61 points by beating Palace, Brighton, West Ham, and Fulham in their next four fixtures.
Well, Leicester did win the league once -or- “Snowball’s chance in a usually-warm climate” (Class D): Arsenal, Everton
This is one of those breathy, “Look you could draw up a path and it’s not entirely unreasonable because remember that Arsenal once won the league unbeaten and Leicester once won the league” scenarios. (Inhales again). If Arsenal would’ve beaten Liverpool and/or bows out of the UEL soon, you could see their cake schedule delivering a minimum of 60 points and then hoping a bunch of their rivals either draw each other and get upset a bunch.
Yes, even Everton and their “most matches left” hopes fit into the ol’ Class D category, due mostly to the quality of opponents left on their docket, but Carlo Ancelotti and a number of his players have the experience and steel to pull off a miracle-type run while the teams above them beat up on each other while running European and domestic cup gauntlets.
Not Happening (Class E): Leeds United, Aston Villa
Villa‘s schedule is even worse than Everton’s, with 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th (x2) place teams left. Leeds has a path, especially with Man City, Liverpool, and Man United all dealing with European congestion in the next few weeks, but Marcelo Bielsa’s men simply haven’t shown us enough to say that they could reel off an 8-match unbeaten run with at least seven wins.