We’re through 26 matchdays in England’s top flight in what has thus far been a pretty drama-less campaign, at least at the top of the table. There are no inspirational rags-to-riches stories (ie Leicester) or heart-pounding title fights (ie 2014), but still plenty left to play for as we take stock of the Top 4 and Bottom 3 races in the artist-formerly-known-as Barclay’s Premier League, with a mere 5 points separating 2nd and 6th and 3 points separating 15th and 19th.
The Race for the Top 4
- CHELSEA: Current table-toppers are free and clear, with a title inevitable at this point. Antonio Conte has had all the answers since switching to a three-man back line after a thrashing at Arsenal earlier in the year. Currently 10 points clear, with no European football to get in the way, the only question is whether they’ll add the domestic double at Wembley, with an FA Cup quarterfinal tie against Manchester United in two weeks. Barring an unexpected Diego Costa sale to China in the coming days (China’s transfer window is kind of indefinite and Costa was rumored to be moving as of a few weeks ago, before the fire died), Chelsea will lift the trophy. PROJECTED FINISH: 1st
- TOTTENHAM: Spurs rather embarrassingly flamed out of Europe twice, but on the bright side they can focus on a second-place run without Thursday flights to Russia to worry about. Spurs were out of the gates well, unbeaten until a Nov 26 trip to Stamford Bridge. Uneven form since then has been largely due to injuries at the back, per our Tottenham insider and Albuquerque Sol academy prospect Noah Seligman. Ultimately, despite a rather spotty club history when pressure mounts, Spurs are the most reliable and drama-free squad among England’s top 6, save for Chelsea. An all-North London FA Cup tie at Wembley is still in the cards, but no other competitions to worry about should quell concerns of the annual Pochettino legginess that goes along with his relentless training and gameday tactics. Only remaining matches against fellow Top 4 contenders are at home (Arsenal and United). PROJECTED FINISH: 2nd
- MANCHESTER CITY: The Peppening at the Etihad has been pretty uninspiring thus far, with dodgy acquisitions (namely Claudio Bravo replacing Joe Hart in goal) paired with dodgy tactics (they don’t do any defending). A surely-futile European run coupled with an injury to actually descent acquisition Gabriel Jesus could deplete the injury stores in the league. That said, the sheer strength of the squad should probably be enough to overcome Fraudiola’s lack of interest in self-evaluation. An upcoming three-match run against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea should decide it all. PROJECTED FINISH: 3rd
- ARSENAL: Biggest dumpster fire of the top 6 is clearly the Gunners, who might be on the managerial market this summer, with supporters growing increasingly disenchanted with Arsene Wenger’s propensity to not win anything. A 5-1 thrashing at the Allianz to Bayern have the North London side on the brink of phoning in the rest of the season. They have games against the rest of England’s top 6 remaining and will have plenty of rest to prepare after they are sent out of Europe by Bayern next week. Arsenal always save themselves late in the campaign. Despite the injury to Santi Cazorla and the uncertainty surrounding Alexis Sanchez and Wenger, expect the same this year. PROJECTED FINISH: 4th
- LIVERPOOL: LFC does this dumb thing where they beat all the good teams and lose to the crap ones. In fact, they’re unbeaten against the rest of England’s top 6, with wins at Arsenal and at Chelsea as the cherry-toppers. But they’ve lost to some really bad sides, with Hull, Swansea, Bournemouth, and Burnley the most egregious examples, not to mention Wolverhampton in the FA Cup. They’re the most aesthetically pleasing team in England, but lack the ruthlessness on defense to tally the points necessary to get Champions League football. Sadio Mane is back from the African Cup of Nations, and Phillipe Coutinho is fully fit. However, the points dropped during their absences will not be reclaimed. PROJECTED FINISH: 5th
- MANCHESTER UNITED: Good news: United is on the best run of form of any club in Europe’s top 5 leagues, unbeaten in England since an Oct 23 capitulation at Stamford Bridge. Bad news: They haven’t moved out of 6th in that time, and their fixture list is about to get super dicey. Mourinho’s side have been unquestionably impressive in the last few months, capped off Sunday with his first piece of silverware as United manager in the League Cup (no, the Charity Shield doesn’t count). That said, United are likely to go deep in the Europa League, and have had two league matches postponed due to other domestic cup responsibilities. As a result, the Red Devils will be playing two matches a week almost weekly between now and May. This doesn’t pair well with Mourinho’s preference to keep a small squad, light on rotations. United’s best path to Champions League football remains the Europa League. PROJECTED FINISH: 6th.
The Race to the Bottom
- SUNDERLAND: Currently sitting on 19 points, three points behind 17th, Sunderland seem poised to finally take the dance with the English Championship they’ve been flirting with for the last few years. The decision not to sell in-demand striker Jermaine Defoe during the January transfer window is a sign that Moyes’s side intends to find a late season run, but there’s absolutely no sign it will happen. Two of their final three matches are against relegation contenders, which may be the only chance they’ll have to save themselves. RELEGATED?: Oh goodness, yes.
- HULL CITY: The fact that Hull aren’t in the position Aston Villa were last year, basically relegated halfway through the year, is a tribute to the job done by new manager Marco Silva. Hull began the campaign with 13 first team players and a fan mutiny on their hands, so 21 points for the season might have seemed optimistic, much less by February. However, any chance they had to stay up likely went out the window in January (pun intended) when Hull sold their TWO BEST PLAYERS ARE YOU KIDDING ME (Jake Livermore, Robert Snodgrass). At least pretend you want to stay up. RELEGATED?: Uh, yeah.
- LEICESTER CITY: The Champions of England are fresh off of firing their manager and now have a caretaker manager named Shakespeare so what could possibly go wrong? Sacking Claudio Ranieri was the right decision notwithstanding some breathless concern from some pundits about how there is no soul in football anymore. The players had quit on him and there is still enough talent in the side and games remaining in the year to salvage themselves. They’re still in Europe, which is cool, with a not-so-difficult task to get to the final 8 (basically just win 1-0 at home in the return leg against Sevilla). Raneiri’s fault was abandoning the counterattacking 4-4-2 that won them the title in favor of a more expansive attack that left their mid-30 year old centerbacks hopelessly exposed. Expect a change in the final months. RELEGATED?: No.
- CRYSTAL PALACE: The South London side sacked Alan Pardew in favor of Big Sam Allardyce, who is exactly who you bring in to avoid relegation. The side is good enough and the form seems to be turning just enough to stay up. However, the fixture list isn’t great, with matches remaining against all of England’s top 6, putting excess pressure on their games against fellow relegation candidates. That said, Selhurst Park should provide the necessary home form to dig out enough points to avoid the Championship. RELEGATED?: No.
- SWANSEA CITY: The Swans figured to be a sure relegation candidate early in the year after selling all of their goal scorers. They’re on their fourth manager of the year, which isn’t really ideal. That said, the current manager is Paul Clement (not the American appellate lawyer), who left the cushiest job in sports (Bayern Munich assistant) to take over a job in England. Little did he know Swansea isn’t in England, but rather in Wales, but close enough. Swansea have won 3 of their last 5 (including a win at Liverpool), with their only two losses coming at Chelsea and at City. They’re in form and unlikely to revert. RELEGATED?: Nope.
- MIDDLESBROUGH: Boro is a point above the drop and have perhaps the most rabid fanbase in the top flight, but they have one fatal flaw: they don’t score any goals. They’ve scored 19 (!!!!) in 26 premier league matches. They’re tough to break down, but they don’t have the personnel to magically start finding the net at an appreciably higher rate. They’re really just trying to desperately hold on at this point. RELEGATED?: Yeah.