The Premier League may not have much of a title race to speak of this season but the battle to finish in the top four and earn a place in next year’s Champions League is still just about alive.
Leicester City and Chelsea currently occupy third and fourth place and look relatively comfortable but they face busy, difficult run-ins, with FA Cup and Champions League finals to prepare for.
The other contenders – West Ham, Tottenham and Liverpool – have no such problem and can focus solely on the task at hand but all have ground to make up if they are to mount a late push.
With four or five games left for those involved, The Independent has broken down the run-ins, checking the average home and away points-per-game and average expected goal difference (xGD) of their remaining opponents.
Who has the best run-in and who has the worst?
3. Leicester City
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐1/2
Third-place Leicester are five points clear of fifth. Last week’s draw at Southampton was not ideal though and anything less than three points against fourth-bottom Newcastle will mean a nerve-wracking end to the season.
Leicester’s final three games are tough. First up, they travel to Old Trafford next Tuesday night. After playing Chelsea in the FA Cup final the following Saturday, they face Thomas Tuchel’s side again at Stamford Bridge, then round off their campaign against Tottenham.
There is still potential for Leicester to be pulled back in but three points at St James’ Park on Friday night would go a long way to securing Champions League football in the east Midlands next season.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Chelsea are three points clear of West Ham thanks to beating David Moyes’ side two weeks ago. That was a huge win for the Champions League finalists and an important step towards playing in European football’s elite competition again next season.
Now, they have a dress rehearsal for the showpiece in Istanbul, travelling away to play Manchester City. It is arguably the most difficult fixture that every top-flight side faces this season. And once it is out of the way, things do not get much easier for Tuchel’s men.
Arsenal and Leicester visit the Bridge either side of the FA Cup final, then it’s Aston Villa away on the final day. Chelsea have shown they are capable of beating Europe’s best but they will have to come through the busiest and most difficult schedule of all the contenders.
5. West Ham
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐
West Ham’s hopes of an unlikely top-four finish were dealt a substantial blow by that Chelsea defeat. Moyes has struggled to take results against the top-flight’s elite clubs but that at least bodes well for the run-in.
With all ‘big six’ opposition out of the way, West Ham come up against mid-table and bottom-half sides. Everton could provide a test this weekend and have a good away record, but Brighton and Southampton can be confident of staying up and have little left to play for.
West Bromwich Albion have improved of late but may well be relegated by the time they welcome Moyes’ men to the Hawthorns. All West Ham can do is win and hope that either Leicester or Chelsea succumb to their rough run-ins.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐
Tottenham refuse to go away. Hopes of a late push appeared to be over after the draw at Everton ended Jose Mourinho’s tenure but back-to-back wins under caretaker Ryan Mason have kept them in the hunt for now.
Those wins arguably came against the weakest of their remaining opponents – Southampton and Sheffield United – but Wolves’ form has been erratic of late and Nuno Espirito Santo’s side could be there for the taking.
Otherwise, Leeds and Aston Villa are solid mid-table opponents without much to play for and a trip to Leicester on the final day is not exactly ideal. Tottenham’s chances remain very slim but they are not entirely out of the race yet.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐1/2
Liverpool remain the ones to watch, even though they have repeatedly passed up opportunities to gain ground. Still, they have a game in hand on the other contenders after the postponement of their trip to Old Trafford.
Aside from that rearranged meeting with Manchester United, their run-in is kind. All four of their other opponents are in the bottom seven but only West Bromwich have survival to play for and they may even be down by the time they meet Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Then again, Liverpool were supposed to easily overcome Newcastle at Anfield and instead conceded late to draw. Last year’s champions have not looked like a top four side since the turn of the year and must end a miserable season almost perfectly to have any chance.
What if Chelsea finish outside the top four but win the Champions League?
In this scenario, Chelsea would join the Premier League’s top four in next season’s Champions League as the Premier League’s fifth representative.
The Premier League can send a maximum of five teams to the Champions League.
The fourth-place finishers would only have missed out on qualification if Chelsea had won the Champions League while finishing outside the top four and Arsenal had also won the Europa League.
Arsenal’s semi-final elimination at the hands of Villarreal means the teams who finish in the top four will all qualify for the Champions League.