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Initiative in top-four race continues to dangle as quartet stumble again

Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea

First up was Tottenham. Spurs hosted West Ham at their rejuvenated White Hart Lane, which still has the new stadium smell, and hasn’t been dented by an opposition scoring. Spurs faced the Hammers, with the chance for a win that would all but seal their place in the top four. But Mauricio Pochettino’s side have looked weary of late, and looked to have one mind on their Champions League semi-final against Ajax in midweek.

As such, Spurs hardly got to second gear, not to talk of leaving it, and West Ham became the first opposition to score and win at the new stadium. It was typical of the Irons, who seemed to find an extra gear against Spurs. Costing them a Champions League place in 2006, dumping them out of the title equation in 2017, and now putting a spanner in their top four works.

Tottenham 0-1 West Ham
Spurs were left frustrated in defeat to West Ham

So it was very much all to play for again. Spurs were third, but only six points ahead of sixth, with the other three teams having played a game less (albeit one of those games involves two of the other three playing each other). Race on, again.

Arsenal were the next Champions League hunters to take to the pitch, as they visited Leicester. But they started badly at the King Power, and finished the first half with a man less. By full time, they had conceded three goals without reply. That means the Gunners have lost their last three games – 3-2, 3-1, and 3-0 – and didn’t capitalise on their North London neighbours’ slip. Within a month, Unai Emery’s side have gone from having the initiative in the top four race, to looking in from the outside.

Leicester 3-0 Arsenal
Arsenal failed to cash in on Spurs’ loss, with a defeat of their own at Leicester

The weekend ended with Chelsea and Manchester United meeting at Old Trafford. Earlier results meant a win for United and they would be level on points with fourth-placed Chelsea, and with games against Huddersfield and Cardiff to come, they’d be a strong position; manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer expressed belief pre-match that if they win this, they’ll surely make the top four. For Chelsea, victory would put them one win away from guaranteeing a spot in next Champions League, and it would effectively knock United out of the race.

But there’d be no winner at the Theatre of Dreams. United dominated the first half, and took a deserved lead through Juan Mata. But a David de Gea error meant Marcos Alonso equalised for the Blues before half time. The second was one of urgency but no little penetration, with opposing strikers in a seemingly contest of who’d be caught offside more times – Gonzalo Higuain won, beating Romelu Lukaku 5-3 in that regard. But for the second weekend running, a loose top four battle begged for a team to take the initiative, and none of the four did.

Last weekend, Spurs began proceedings with a defeat at Manchester City. Then United followed that up with a horror showing in the 4-0 loss at Everton. Arsenal walked the same path, with a 3-2 setback at home to Crystal Palace, before Chelsea could only draw at Burnley. On Wednesday, Arsenal lost at Wolves, and United suffered a defeat in the Manchester derby. Since last Saturday, Spurs (beating Brighton on Tuesday) are the only side from third to sixth place to have won a game.

In fact, since the start of April, the four teams have played a combined 21 games, and managed 27 points, just one more than 14th-placed Bournemouth have managed in 18 home games this season. In this top four race, the teams seem to be falling over each other towards the finish line, as no one seems to want it.

With two games left, third-placed Spurs are five points ahead of sixth-placed United, four ahead of Arsenal in fifth. Given the recent pattern of the teams, they seem home and dry already. The gap between the top six and rest have been enormous in recent seasons, not least in terms of the top four race. In the past two seasons, the teams that finish third and fourth have managed at least 75 points – the team in third has had 78 and 76 points respectively, while the fourth-placed side has ended with 77 and 75. This time 78 and 77 are no longer on the table, very little margins, but indicative of how this battle has become its own semi-ineptitude challenge, and also how far below the top two they are.

The gap between second and third place this season will be at least 15 points, a far cry from just four last season, eight in 2016/17, one in 2015/16 and five in 2014/15. Not since 2012 has there been such a gap, and that 19-point margin would likely be surpassed this term.

Chaos is a ladder, they say. But in this bedlam of a Champions League chase, no one seems to want to make the climb.

City go down in the mud at Turf Moor

At the end of Manchester City’s win at Burnley, they had six centre-backs on the pitch. Pep Guardiola’s were by far the better side in Lancashire, and were ultimately hardly troubled in the end, but this win was probably their grittiest of the season. The champions return to the top, with two games left, having won the past three without conceding.

Bluebirds on the brink

How’s your luck Cardiff. The Bluebirds went into their game at Fulham, knowing a win would take them level on points with 17th-placed Brighton. But they conceded a worldie from Ryan Babel, and somehow met Fulham goalkeeper Sergio Rico in top-class form. Cardiff only have themselves to blame, for playing so cautiously until they went behind, but they did more than enough to equalise – heck, win – after they conceded. Neil Warnock’s side need to win their final two games to stand a chance of survival.

Elsewhere:

  • As per the Spurs-West Ham game, Michail Antonio is the first opponent to score in the new stadium. And Vincent Janssen and Fernando Llorente ended the game as the Spurs’ front duo.
  • Fulham have won three games on the bounce without conceding. No, seriously.
  • Ayoze Perez can’t stop scoring. Five goals in three games for Newcastle man.
  • It was a brilliant frenzied game in the less-celebrated South Coast derby, as Southampton and Bournemouth played out a 3-3 draw at St. Mary’s. A game in which the Saints took the lead through goal machine Shane Long, but 20 minutes later fell behind, then scored twice in 12 second half minutes to take, only to concede with four left. At least the result secures their Premier League status for next season.
  • Speaking of next season, welcome mats for Norwich City and Sheffield United, who sealed promotion from the Championship this weekend. A return for Norwich after three seasons away, while the Blades are back for the first time since 2007.

Results

Liverpool 5-0 Huddersfield

Tottenham 0-1 West Ham

Fulham 1-0 Cardiff

Southampton 3-3 Bournemouth

Crystal Palace 0-0 Everton

Watford 1-2 Wolves

Brighton 1-1 Newcastle

Leicester 3-0 Arsenal

Burnley 0-1 Manchester City

Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea

Kunle Ajao63 Posts

Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not

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