When the Premier League returns after the international break it does so as if making up for lost momentum; a full midweek programme follows this coming weekend’s fixtures and by the time everyone has played twice in four or five days the remaining games will be down to single figures and the run-in will be under way.
Chelsea’s 10-point lead means they are universally regarded as a shoo-in for the title, though by that reckoning Arsenal have no chance of overhauling Tottenham, who are nine points ahead of their London rivals. While Arsenal have a game in hand, they also have a testing match coming up with the visit of Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola’s side are probably not the ideal opponents to face when you have lost four of your last five league games – “a unique bad patch where we haven’t been for 20 years”, was how Arsène Wenger described it – and though it is unlikely City will base their strategy on outjumping Arsenal at corners this could be another day of reckoning and recrimination at the Emirates. It is just as well the skies above the stadium are off-limits to stunt planes, otherwise the next logical progression might be an aerial dogfight between the opposing factions.
Arsenal lost in Manchester in December and should they do so again a 10-point gap would open up between them. It is worth noting that Wenger’s team has by far the worst record among top-seven clubs of taking points from other sides in that echelon.
Liverpool are the top performers in the mini-league at the top of the table with an average return of 2.1 points per game against the leading seven clubs. Chelsea are not far behind with 1.8, while the Gunners bring up the rear with a paltry 0.6.
City’s own stats are not that impressive: along with Manchester United they average a point per game against top-seven opponents, but Arsenal’s wobbles against top sides began on the first day of the season with a 4-3 home defeat by Liverpool and have not really recovered since.
Unless this is to be the first season this century without Champions League football at Arsenal it is vital City are not allowed to extend their lead into double figures, even if realistically it is Liverpool who Arsenal and United are looking to overtake.
Saturday brings the Merseyside derby at Anfield and should Liverpool take three points from their neighbours – always a possibility bearing in mind they won the earlier encounter at Goodison – they, too, will be nine points ahead of Arsenal by kick-off time against City.
Crucially, however, Liverpool will have played three games more. While Jürgen Klopp’s side have a good record against leading clubs this season and do not have to play any more of them once Everton are out of the way, what appears a straightforward run-in is complicated by the knowledge that teams from the bottom half of the table have tended to be the ones capable of tripping Liverpool up.
With five clubs vying for the three Champions League places below Chelsea – unless they can produce a surprise result at Anfield, Everton are surely too far behind – the whole top-four picture is complicated. Many feel United still have the potential to stage a late run into a Champions League placing, though games in hand are not necessarily an advantage when they are the only side in the equation still involved in Europe.
Although this is undoubtedly the tightest, most intriguing top-four situation the Champions League qualifying process has brought about, for Arsenal or United to break in, someone above them will have to slip up quite badly. There are various reasons why that might happen – Harry Kane’s absence could affect Spurs, City’s defence could go walkabout again, Liverpool might be stymied by a succession of teams keeping men behind the ball and playing it cagey at the back – though on the whole those scenarios seem as unlikely as Chelsea blowing it from here. Put another way, it seems much more likely that United will tire and drop points and that Arsenal will continue to be out of sorts and a source of exasperation to their supporters and manager.
That is not to say there will be no movement within the top four – Liverpool’s gentle run-in is in contrast to City’s, who must play at Arsenal and Chelsea in the space of week – but with no distractions apart from the FA Cup (how quaint) it is hard to see why any of the present top four would surrender their Champions League status from this point on.
Even allowing for the tenacity that teams in the relegation battle can show at this stage in the season, Spurs, City and Liverpool all have enough games against sides lower in the table to keep ahead of the chasers. It is the chasers who have the more demanding run-ins. United still have to play five teams from the top seven, including City, Arsenal and Spurs away, while Arsenal in their present disarray will not find it easy to pick up points against City, Spurs, United and Everton, not to mention Stoke away from home.
The flipside of that argument is that having so many games against direct rivals gives you a real chance if you can win them. It could be said, for instance, that United’s destiny is still in their own hands and if they beat Everton, Chelsea, City, Arsenal and Spurs they would do their Champions League hopes a power of good while simultaneously harming the sides above and around them.
Not too many United fans will be holding their breath. Winning the Europa League might be easier than that and even José Mourinho has started to sound less sanguine about his chances of qualifying through the league. While United appear to have a better chance than Arsenal, both could find the door already closed.