Sunday 26 January 2020

Top-four race entering final straight

Spurs' visit to Chelsea first in series of fixtures to decide final reckoning for Champions League

‘Mauricio Pochettino (right) has the opportunity to bury Antonio Conte’s dreams of Champions League football for Roman Abramovich before the Chelsea owner signs the Italian coach’s P45.’ Photo: PA
‘Mauricio Pochettino (right) has the opportunity to bury Antonio Conte’s dreams of Champions League football for Roman Abramovich before the Chelsea owner signs the Italian coach’s P45.’ Photo: PA

Colin Young

The Premier League title race is already over and Pep Guardiola could clinch his first league crown in England with victory in the Manchester derby next weekend. Next up is the battle for the Champions League qualifying places. And that could be settled by the end of this afternoon too.

Tottenham's visit to Stamford Bridge offers Mauricio Pochettino the opportunity to bury Antonio Conte's dreams of delivering Champions League football for Roman Abramovich, before the Chelsea owner signs the Italian coach's P45 and relieves him of his services after just two years. It would also end the Spurs' manager's worst record against any English team. Pochettino has lost seven games against Chelsea with Spurs and Southampton and has never won at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea are four points behind their London rivals and although Spurs have an appalling record in this fixture, and no Harry Kane, their first Premier League victory at the Bridge would surely end Chelsea's hopes of finishing in the top four, a year after they lifted the Premier League trophy.

Spurs last won at Chelsea 30 games and 28 years ago - the day before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and all of their five Premier League wins have been at White Hart Lane. They couldn't even register a win in the reverse fixture at Wembley earlier in the season, losing 2-1 in August following a brace by Marcos Alonso.

But Tottenham are the form team in the Premier League since the turn of the year; the only unbeaten top-flight team in 2018, having conceded just five goals in ten Premier League games since the turn of the year.

However, they have an appalling record against the top six on their travels and have not kept a clean sheet in 29 away matches against those teams. Incredibly, Spurs have only won one of their 19 Premier League away games against the top six with Pochettino as boss, and that was a 2-1 victory at Manchester City more than two years ago.

This season, although they drew 2-2 at Liverpool, they have lost 4-1 at City, 2-0 at Arsenal and 1-0 at Manchester United, which was the only league fixture Kane has missed this season.

Pochettino is optimistic that captain Kane, sidelined with an ankle ligament injury he suffered in a clash with Bournemouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic last month, will return before the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United on April 21 but he looks likely to miss the crucial clash at home to City before that.

The visit of the champions-elect, who could be afforded a guard of honour at Wembley, should be Spurs' toughest day of the remaining campaign. But they also have four fixtures which will play a significant part in the relegation story, as well as their own. Tottenham still have to travel to Stoke, West Brom, their former assistant manager and defender Chris Hughton's Brighton, and must also fit in a re-arranged game at home to Newcastle United somewhere down the line.

By contrast, Chelsea's record in this calendar year has been indifferent to say the least and they would be 12th in a league table based on 2018 results, with just three league wins. In fact, they have won six, drawn six and lost six in their 18 games in all competitions so far this year.

If Chelsea can maintain their excellent record against Tottenham today, and narrow the gap to a point with seven to play, they have a marginally easier run-in, with only Liverpool and Burnley to play in the top half of the table.

As well as their re-arranged fixture against Huddersfield Town to negotiate, Chelsea host a final London derby of the season when they meet strugglers West Ham next week and they must travel to the Hammers' relegation rivals Southampton and Swansea before a trip to Newcastle, and former Blues' boss Rafa Benitez, on the last day of the season.

Liverpool finished fourth last season which meant their Champions League campaign, which continues with the visit of Manchester City to Anfield on Wednesday, actually started in the same week as the Premier League kicked off. Just three days after they opened their league campaign with a thrilling 3-3 draw at Watford, Jurgen Klopp's side beat Hoffenheim 2-1 in Germany before seeing them off on Merseyside a fortnight later with a 4-2 win.

Liverpool have a healthy ten-point cushion over Chelsea in fourth following yesterday's hard-fought 2-1 win at Crystal Palace and a mixed bag of fixtures to come, starting with the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park on Saturday when Sam Allardyce will be aiming to end Everton's terrible record against their city rivals. Liverpool are now unbeaten in 16 meetings in all competitions against Everton, beating the longest undefeated run between the two sides when they won the FA Cup third-round tie in January, a month after their 1-1 Premier League draw.

Aside from the visit to Chelsea for the penultimate game of their season, Liverpool have a potentially comfortable run-in with Bournemouth, Stoke and Brighton all to visit Anfield, and a trip to bottom club West Brom - although Alan Pardew's side did knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup.

These games were Klopp's Achilles heel last season but only one of their four Premier League defeats in this campaign has come against a team outside the top four, which was their shock 1-0 loss at Swansea City in January.

Klopp, who took charge of his 100th Premier League game as Liverpool manager at Selhurst Park yesterday, may be able to see off the challenges of Spurs and Chelsea to claim his highest league finish for the club, but the defeat to Manchester United last month has given Jose Mourinho's side a two-point advantage, with a game in hand.

Progress at Old Trafford has been slow, unattractive and expensive under the former Chelsea boss and there is a chasm between City and United this season, which will be confirmed over the coming weeks. But United are improving and have already secured more points this season than they managed in Louis van Gaal's final season as manager two years ago.

It seems a hollow claim from a club so used to winning titles under Alex Ferguson, but Manchester United fans will no doubt seek some solace from this season if they can finish above their other major rivals, Liverpool.

Once they have visited the noisy neighbours next weekend, United will also drop in on sides with the threat of relegation hanging over them as they still have to play West Brom, Bournemouth, Brighton and West Ham away from home, but they have just two home fixtures - against Watford and Arsenal - remaining.

And then there is Arsenal. As Arsene Wenger clings on to power at the Emirates, he faces the prospect of one final showdown at Old Trafford with his greatest foe, Mourinho - and, barring a miraculous series of league results or a Europa League triumph - another season without Champions League football. The Gunners' chances of reaching the top four will have evaporated by then.

They are already eight points adrift of Chelsea, and another 13 from their north London rivals Tottenham and this is only the third season they have failed to reach 50 points after 30 Premier League fixtures - the last two were in 1993 and 1995, both in the pre-Wenger era.

But Arsenal are unlikely to come unstuck against Paul Lambert's Stoke City today. They have won all 10 home games against sides below them this season and are aiming to continue a run of 12 consecutive top-flight home wins over Stoke, which stretches back 37 years and is the visitors' worst losing streak against any team in England's four divisions on their travels.

Southampton, West Ham and Burnley also have to play at the Emirates before the Arsenal board decide Wenger's fate. His team's fortunes against CSKA Moscow and beyond in Europe could have a greater bearing on the Frenchman's destiny beyond this campaign.

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