So this is it, the latter stages of the season, the run-in. The time in the season where teams tend to show their bottle or lack of. This year the importance of the run-in will weigh heavily on the top six teams, with only nine points separating positions second to seventh. The run-in will well and truly determine which team has bragging rights and more importantly, Champions League football next season. Arsenal fans have learned the hard way how lapses in performance can see them fall into a position they were mocking only weeks ago. With the high intensity of this season’s chase for top four, this article discusses the biggest challenges facing the current teams in the running.
For the purpose of this article, as Chelsea leading the way by some distance, it is almost guaranteed that they will be playing Champions League football next year, therefore, they are not included here. While Arsenal have two games in hand over Everton in seventh, therefore despite their recent good form they have not been included either.
Finally, the escape from sixth has been a truly testing one, but fans will be much more confident heading into the latter stages of the season with sixth behind them. While of course, it is worth considering that while United are one of the favourites to win the Europa League, there can be no room for complacency. A first glance at April’s fixtures will raise many an eyebrow, with a staggering nine fixtures in one month. In the premier league, United are set to face West From, Everton, Chelsea and Swansea all at home. Along with a notoriously important derby at the Etihad towards the end of the month. Through this period United also face the task of progressing past Anderlecht, a factor that will need a very strong first leg performance. May brings arguably the most challenging games for United with away trips to Arsenal, Spurs and then Southampton on the final day. With United having to face four of the other teams in the top six, points have to be dropped and advantages will be gained in the race for top four. The timely return of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will no doubt give United a boost for these games. But the sheer volume of games will test Mourinho’s ability to rotate and adapt to these challenges.
Difficulty of run-in: Severe – huge volume of games along with the need to get three points in some very tough games to ensure Champions League football.
With arguably the easiest run-in, Liverpool have been eliminated from all cup competitions and face no fellow top six clubs. With their toughest fixtures being West From at the Hawthorns and then Southampton at Anfield, the advantage that Liverpool have is huge. Of course, the teams at the lower end of the table need to play out of their skin to avoid relegation but if Liverpool really wants to finish in the top four they should be dispatching those teams. However, as Liverpool have shown this season they are very prone to slipping up against the lower league opposition, so this run-in may prove too much for them.
Difficulty of run-in: Easy – facing many teams lower in the league and at home.
With seven games in April, along with a no doubt testing trip to Wembley to face Arsenal, City face a tough month. They start by facing both Arsenal and Chelsea away, games that scream “dropped points”, games that could very well dent their momentum for the rest of the month. As Pep Guardiola has shown this season his team tends to win in patches and losing points at the start of the month could make this very interesting. However, if they overcome these games, they still face challenging matches away at Southampton and of course, the Manchester derby. These matches will no doubt be easy but if they arrive into May unscathed they may face a relatively easy month, with their away trip to Watford being their most challenging fixture.
Difficulty of run-in: moderate/severe – the start of this run in is going to be very challenging but their May fixtures stop this being a severely difficult run-in
Currently in sixth due to some horrendous results, along with well-documented fan unrest, Arsenal will be lacking confidence going into April. With their current form, their run-in does not look pretty. Facing Manchester City first will be no easy game, followed by away games at Palace and Middlesborough who will no doubt be fighting to avoid relegation. Arsenal have shown time and again this season that big games have been their downfall, not showing up and somehow getting some points, but this is not happening recently. Arsenal finish April and start May with games against both their nemesis Tottenham, and a team that completely out- played them in the repeat fixture this season; Manchester United. Two games that will not be welcomed by Arsenal and two games that will most definitely have a direct impact on who finishes in the top four. Arsenal finish the season with a wet and windy trip to Stoke and then Everton at the emirates.
Difficulty of run-in: Severe – with current form and consistently facing teams who need to win, Arsenal face an uphill battle in this run-in.
Scarily impressive recently, with the loss of their talisman Harry Kane still to hit them. Tottenham have been very efficient this season and have quietly put them amongst the top contenders for the champions league this season. With this in mind, they have a relatively “simple” start to their run-in before the games start becoming more challenging. With games against Burnley, Swansea, Watford and Bournemouth being more theirs to lose. The semi-final of the Emirates FA Cup may provide Spurs with their major hurdle as it causes a more congested April for them. However, this does not deter from the fact they are only playing two of the fellow top six and these come in the form of a North London derby on 30th April and a home clash with United on may 13th. With their easy start to the run-in considered, Spurs could arrive into those games brimming with confidence. As with Liverpool, the ball is very much in their court and any slip up will be of their own making.
Difficulty of run-in: Moderate – still have a congested April due to an FA Cup semi-final, however coming up against relatively lower league opposition should suit them.
Written by Anthony Withington