John Aldridge: There are three obvious favourites to complete the Premier League top four - with one giant to miss out
THERE are now three firm favourites to join Manchester City in the Premier League’s top four - yet two or three key games and a couple of injuries to star players could still flip everything in the final 10 fixtures of the season.
While Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday means last season’s champions are in danger of missing out on qualification for the Champions League, this story is still likely to have a few twists and turns in it.
What happens if Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah picks up a big injury or Tottenham’s Harry Kane is ruled out for a month? It could be a hammer blow to both club’s hopes of securing one of their prized top four berths.
I look at the Manchester United squad and they have enough strength in depth to cope with a few big injuries and that is why I expect them to pick up enough points to finish second, but Chelsea are also relying on two players to carry their hopes.
If Diego Costa was still leading the line for Chelsea, I’d have fancied them to get something out of the game at United on Sunday and he was great at bullying (and occasionally cheating) his way to success.
Chelsea have to go to Man City next and if they were to lose that game, which is likely, they could be five points behind fourth-placed Tottenham and right up against the wall.
You can’t write off a team that did so well to win the Premier League title last season, but the evidence of the last few months has highlighted once again the massive advantage they had not playing in Europe last season.
Like Leicester the year before, Chelsea cashed in on long breaks between matches and the strength of their squad has been found out this season, as their manager Antonio Conte suggested it would.
For a number of reasons, I think it would be good for the game if Liverpool and Tottenham secured top four finishes as along with City, they are the only sides trying to play football every week.
Liverpool fans were hoping Spurs would drop points at Crystal Palace on Sunday and they very nearly did, yet the image of the Premier League is tarnished when we see the kind of tactics used by Eagles boss Roy Hodgson succeeding.
Palace were at home, cheered on by some of the most vocal fans in the league, and yet their manager hoisted the white flag and put 11 men behind the ball from first to last in the hope of getting a 0-0.
The prize of staying in the Premier League and the bonuses managers get when they achieve that relatively modest ‘success’ is now damaging the game as most teams are simply trying not to lose rather than a win.
We have seen something similar from Manchester United at times this season as Jose Mourinho is happy to sacrifice entertainment in the pursuit of success, but he also has three or four top class players to get his side over the line when they are not at their best and that will allow him to get away with his brand of negative football for a little while longer.
So essentially, I’m predicting United, Liverpool and Tottenham will complete the top four, with the order of those teams probably determined by the United v Liverpool game at Old Trafford on March 10th and Chelsea v Spurs game at Stamford Bridge on April 1st.
Chelsea v Liverpool in the penultimate game of the season could throw up a final twist, but Conte’s side - and the Chelsea manager - could be out of it by then as they have some tough matches on their horizon.
My top four prediction:
1. Man City
2. Man United