With Manchester United holding an unassailable 15-point advantage over Manchester City, the main source of interest in the upper echelons of the Premier League table in the closing weeks of the season is the intriguing battle for a top-four finish between Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton.
Spurs are currently in the box seat after last weekend’s 2-1 win at Swansea City saw them leapfrog Chelsea and move into third place on 57 points, with the Blues suffering a 2-1 defeat by Southampton at St Mary’s.
Chelsea are a further two points back and hold the same advantage over fifth-placed Arsenal, who in turn are also two points clear of Everton, although all three sides possess a game in hand on Andre Villas-Boas’ men.
According to the bookmakers at bwin, Chelsea are the 2/5 favourites to secure Champions League qualification, with Spurs and Arsenal both at 3/5 and Everton rated as a 9/1 chance (check out our top-four market right here).
But despite looking destined to miss out for much of a turbulent campaign – particularly after their damaging recent defeat in the north London derby – it is the Gunners who arguably offer the best value to secure a spot in the top four for a 16th consecutive season.
Why so? Well, since you ask, there are four key factors behind that assertion – and here they are.
Horrendous schedules for Chelsea and Spurs
Chelsea and Tottenham have already clocked up plenty of miles in the Europa League and with both facing eminently winnable quarter-finals against Rubin Kazan and Basel respectively, their hectic schedules could yet catch up with them.
The Blues, in particular, will have their squad stretched to the limit in the remainder of the campaign as they are also chasing glory in the FA Cup.
Indeed, their 1-0 quarter-final replay win over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday was the second in a run of seven games in just 19 days for Rafael Benitez’s men and how the Spaniard juggles his resources will be key to securing the top-four finish that owner Roman Abramovich is demanding.
However, a long trip to Russia in between a vital Premier League game against Sunderland and a Wembley semi-final date with Man City is not ideal and considering the Blues have already played a whopping 55 matches this term, fatigue is bound to be a major factor as the Premier League battle reaches its defining phase.
Villas-Boas, for his part, has stated from the outset that he wants to win the Europa League and has generally been reluctant to engage in full-scale rotation for Spurs’ Thursday night assignments.
As a result, a pivotal league clash with Everton sandwiched in between the two Basel games throws up a real selection dilemma for the Portuguese, particularly with Jermain Defoe set to miss all three games and striking alternatives so thin on the ground (does Emmanuel Adebayor even count as an alternative?).
Meanwhile, Arsenal (and Everton, it must be said) can focus purely on their final eight Premier League games after their early FA Cup exit and recent Champions League demise at the hands of Bayern Munich.
That clarity and the greater rest periods between games should allow Arsene Wenger’s men to be fresh and free of niggles in the home straight – can the same really be said of Chelsea and Spurs?
Striking the psychological blow
The other major consequence of Chelsea and Tottenham being involved in the latter stages of the Europa League is that their upcoming Premier League games are predominantly on Sundays.
Benitez’s men have eight league games left, while Spurs have seven, but at present, both teams know that just two of those assignments are pencilled in as Saturday kick-offs.
Chelsea play Swansea City at home on April 27th on a day when Spurs head north to Wigan Athletic, while May 4th provisionally sees the Blues travelling to Man Utd and the Lilywhites welcoming Southampton.
However, with the Europa League semi-final dates set as April 25th and May 2nd, all four games will presumably be moved if Rubin and Basel, as expected, are defeated.
So perhaps Arsenal, whose fixture list is largely dominated by Saturday games, will actually be cheering Chelsea and Spurs on in those quarter-final ties.
Such a scenario would allow them to get the first strike in on nearly every Premier League weekend between now and the end of the season 24 hours before their two bitter rivals even play, thereby cranking up the pressure on almost all of the duo’s remaining games.
Indeed, this weekend is a perfect example as the Gunners head to West Brom on Saturday and will move above Chelsea and to within a point of Spurs if they win, with the latter pair having to wait until Sunday for their outings.
Favourable fixture list
If Wenger is seeking further signs of encouragement, he can certainly find it by comparing Arsenal’s run-in with those of Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton.
The encounter with Everton immediately stands out and could well prove crucial, although if Spurs are able to beat the Merseysiders on Sunday, the Gunners could all but end their challenge with victory at the Emirates on April 16th.
But beyond that midweek clash – and a home game with Manchester United – the assignments do not appear too daunting for Wenger’s troops.
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Arsenal have four away games left and the next two are against teams with nothing to play for in the shape of mid-table-dwelling West Brom and Fulham, while trips to QPR and Newcastle United in May could fall into the same category, as the former may already be relegated and the latter should be safe by the final day of the campaign.
Their other two home games, against Norwich City and Wigan Athletic, will see them go in as massive favourites and even United could be in more charitable mood than usual if they have wrapped up the title by the time they visit north London on April 28th.
More good news for Arsenal is that Chelsea still have to play Tottenham and Everton (both at Stamford Bridge), on top of Spurs’ clash with the Toffees this weekend.
So in other words, they will have at least three chances to capitalise when their direct rivals are facing each other in games where, obviously, one or both of them will definitely drop points.
With Chelsea also facing trips to Liverpool and United – and an Aston Villa side likely to be battling for their lives on the penultimate weekend of the campaign – claiming a top-four berth is unlikely to be a stroll for the Blues.
For Tottenham, in addition to the Everton and (rearranged) Chelsea clashes, they must face Manchester City at White Hart Lane and battle Wigan Athletic, Southampton, Stoke City and Sunderland in their final four games.
At least two of that latter quartet could still be fighting for survival, so Spurs look unlikely to receive any end-of-season gifts from teams who are already on the beach mentally.
Factor in the potential for further fixture congestion should their continental adventures continue and suddenly their run-in appears littered with banana skins.
Of course, even drawing Chelsea in the Europa League semi-finals is a live possibility – imagine the huge psychological and physical drain those two fixtures would inflict on both clubs’ squads.
There is also the small matter of that scenario all Spurs fans must be thinking about but dare not mention: an injury to Gareth Bale in the coming weeks.
Far from wanting to put the hex on a player who has been in such scintillating form this term, it is surely legitimate to ask who would shoulder the Welshman’s goalscoring burden if he was absent for any significant spell.
After all, Defoe is struggling with injuries and a loss of form (perhaps as a result of being overplayed this season?), Clint Dempsey lacks fitness and Adebayor is, er, Adebayor.
And as far as Everton are concerned, even if they can pick up points from their two daunting visits to north London, that further away game at Chelsea – not to mention a Merseyside derby trip to a Liverpool side they have a dreadful recent record against at Anfield – underlines just how tough they will find it to reel in at least two of the three capital clubs.
Experience of doing it before
If the old cliché about Manchester United knowing how to close out a title because they’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt is true (although there wasn’t much evidence of that last season, was there?), then the same can be said for Arsenal when it comes to top-four finishes.
The Gunners have secured Champions League qualification for each of the past 15 seasons, which is a record that can only be matched by a handful of clubs across Europe.
Sure, they’ve had a couple of narrow escapes, not least in 2005/06 (‘lasagne-gate’ and all that) and last season, when an incredible Kieran Gibbs block in the dying moments of the final game of the campaign against West Brom at the Hawthorns preserved maximum points and ultimately proved the difference between finishing third and fourth.
Spurs did clinch fourth, but only after blowing a ten-point lead over their bitter rivals from along the Seven Sisters Road and it eventually cost them a place in the Champions League (Chelsea finished sixth but their victory over Bayern Munich in the 2012 final saw them snatch Spurs’ spot) and Harry Redknapp his job.
Villas-Boas claimed after the recent 2-1 triumph over Arsenal at the Lane that the Gunners were in a ‘negative spiral’ but the Portuguese must now be hoping that those words do not come back to bite him in the final weeks of the campaign.
After all, last season served as a microcosm of Spurs’ fortunes since Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 – they have never finished above the Gunners during his 17-year tenure – and that mental fragility may well undermine them again.
Everton, for their part, have managed just one Champions League qualification under boss David Moyes, which ended with a controversial defeat by Villarreal in the play-off round in 2005/06, and there must be question marks over whether they have the mental strength and squad depth to stay the course.
Of course, Arsenal do not have a divine right to finish in the top four, but Chelsea showed last term that the same is true of them, regardless of how much money Abramovich lavishes on new players and hiring and firing managers as he sees fit.
Benitez also demonstrated in his final season at Liverpool in 2009/10 that he is more than capable of making a hash of expected Champions League qualification.
The Spaniard oversaw a disappointing seventh-placed finish despite challenging United for the title in the previous campaign and the Reds have not been back in the competition since.
And if domestic results start to go against the Blues, will their interim head coach still be able to galvanise a group of players who are well aware that he is about to leave the club?
It is a question which could cast a major shadow over Chelsea in the final weeks of the season – and play into the hands of a grateful Arsenal side who, in this punter’s humble opinion, look well worth backing at 3/5 to claim yet another top-four finish.