Who has the best run-in of the top four hopefuls in the Premier League
With the final international break of the season now over, attentions turn back to the Premier League and, particularly, the top-four race.
For Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, the task is quite simple: no team has ever finished lower than fourth after reaching 76 points. Three of those teams are currently on course to surpass that target, one is not.
However, fortunes in the final weeks of the season are often dictated by the fixture list and those who benefitted from easier runs earlier in the season can suffer as the schedule evens itself out.
By calculating each Premier League club’s average points-per-game home and away this season, we can approximate the difficulty of each fixture and see who, on paper, has the easier run-in.
Who has the most favourable top-four run-in?
Current position: 3rd
Average points per game of remaining opponents: 1.17
31/03 Crystal Palace (A)
07/04 Everton (A)
14/04 Bournemouth (H)
22/04 West Bromwich (A)
28/04 Stoke (H)
05/05 Chelsea (A)
13/05 Brighton (H)
The run-in makes pleasant reading for Jürgen Klopp’s side. Four wins from their final seven games will effectively put them on the brink of qualification for next season’s Champions League and their fixture lists suggests they will be able to find the victories they need. Only one of their final seven matches is against a team in the top eight.
Liverpool will entertain Bournemouth, Stoke and Brighton at Anfield before the end of the season, and there is also an away day at bottom club West Bromwich Albion to come.
This weekend’s trip to Crystal Palace and a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park could prove tricky, but Klopp will hope and perhaps expect his side to be in a healthy position come to the penultimate weekend of the season, when they play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Current position: 5th
Average points per game of remaining opponents: 1.26
01/04 Tottenham (H)
08/04 West Ham (H)
14/04 Southampton (A)
19/04 Burnley (A)
28/04 Swansea (A)
05/05 Liverpool (H)
13/05 Newcastle (A)
TBC Huddersfield (H)
They are currently bringing up the rear in the top-four race and sit 20 points behind the magic 76 mark, but judging by their run-in, Chelsea could still stage a late charge.
Much will depend on their two home games against direct rivals for a place – Tottenham and Liverpool – with Mauricio Pochettino’s side visiting Stamford Bridge this weekend. If Chelsea lose on Sunday, they will be eight points off their rivals with seven games remaining; win and Tottenham’s lead will be cut down to two.
Whatever the result, Antonio Conte’s side will be confident of picking up a couple of home victories against Huddersfield and West Ham, but gritty wins on the road are likely to be needed too.
Chelsea must travel to play an improved Swansea, a battling Southampton, a resolute Burnley and a difficult Newcastle side before the season is out. Slip-ups in one or more of those fixtures could prove costly.
Current position: 2nd
Average points per game of remaining opponents: 1.27
31/03 Swansea (H)
07/04 Manchester City (A)
15/04 West Bromwich (H)
18/04 Bournemouth (A)
29/04 Arsenal (H)
05/05 Brighton (A)
15/05 Watford (H)
TBC West Ham (A)
Manchester United’s schedule from now until the middle of May is only marginally more difficult than Chelsea’s but their nine-point cushion over fifth-place means that few around Old Trafford are worried about finishing outside the top four.
Realistically, United need three more wins to seal their place and they should find them from their remaining four home fixtures – against Swansea, West Bromwich, Arsenal and Watford. All four are poor travellers. Jose Mourinho should expect maximum points.
On the road, it is likely that United will have to take their medicine and watch City win the title at the Etihad in early April, while Brighton and Bournemouth are not the easiest of away trips, but there is little to worry Mourinho here.
Current position: 4th
Average points per game of remaining opponents: 1.40
01/04 Chelsea (A)
07/04 Stoke (A)
14/04 Manchester City (H)
17/04 Brighton (A)
30/04 Watford (H)
05/05 West Bromwich (A)
13/05 Leicester (H)
TBC Newcastle (H)
While it may not appear to be the most intimidating schedule imaginable, the numbers suggest that Tottenham have the trickiest run-in of all the top-four contenders.
This is chiefly because of their trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday and a meeting in north London with champions-elect Manchester City on 14 April.
By that point, City may have already wrapped up the league title. Pep Guardiola could even have one eye on the Champions League semi-finals by then, and rotation on his part could work in Pochettino’s favour.
Even so, Tottenham will want to pick up points on tricky trips to Brighton and Stoke. There are also easier final day opponents than Claude Puel’s Leicester City. In fact, of all the home fixtures, only the visit of Watford feels like a bankable Tottenham win.
Manchester United should have little problem picking up the points they need and Liverpool’s favourable fixture list suggests that they too will have enough to reach the 76-point mark.
Tottenham’s schedule is a little more concerning but victory at Stamford Bridge this weekend would go a long way to securing a top-four place.
Chelsea, on the other hand, need positive results from their meetings with both Tottenham and Liverpool, then must also hope they do not slip up in one of several tricky away fixtures.
Independent News Service