The race for the top four is simmering nicely as we enter the final 10 games of the season. The target is simple but the mathematics don’t quite stack up – five teams are chasing two Champions League places – Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton are separated by just five points in what looks to be the closest top four race in over a decade.
Third placed Arsenal are in pole position to qualify for the Champions League while Manchester United, who occupy fourth place on 53 points, are being stalked by one of the form teams in Europe – Liverpool.
The Anfield club have picked up 29 points from a possible 33 and beaten Spurs, Southampton and Manchester City in recent weeks to put themselves right in the hunt for a top four place. It’s an unthinkable position given the hole Rodgers’ men found themselves in after the 3-1 defeat at Palace that left them treading water in 12th place.
But can Liverpool qualify for the Champions League for the second consecutive year? Form lines suggest yes they can.
The red machine may have taken a while to shake off the rust but they are steamrollering teams left, right and centre. They are top of the 5, 10 and 15 game form tables and seem to be passing every test put before them in the league. And it’s not just the results that are impressive, the team are playing close to levels they reached last season when they missed out on the title by the slimmest of margins.
Liverpool are playing with a confidence and swagger that suggests they are looking at catching Manchester City and Arsenal rather than settling for fourth place – and why not?
The opening minutes of the recent 2-0 win over Burnley were breath-taking. The one touch passing and telepathy of Liverpool’s attackers was stunning, it felt like a training session for the reds as Burnley couldn’t get hold of the ball for what seemed like an age.
And credit has to go to Brendan Rodgers for switching to the new system with three centre backs that allows Liverpool’s creative players to run amok but providing a defensive bedrock that was missing in the opening dozen games.
However, before Lopites too carried away, it’s unlikely they will remain unbeaten for the rest of the season and how they react to a defeat will be a big test of character.
The red half of Merseyside should also be concerned with the curious case of Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United. The Dutch coach has been lambasted all season for United’s poor performances and the deviation for United’s attacking ethos but they still remain odds on favourites for a top four finish – and sit two points above Liverpool – not bad for a team in crisis.
United’s late 1-0 win over Newcastle has been symbolic of their season. De Gea keeping them in the match then nicking the game by the odd goal – it’s a worrying trend – so if United can really click into another gear they too could be looking upwards and not over their shoulder.
The remaining fixtures play a key part too. Arsenal, on paper at least, look nailed on for another top four finish. They have the luxury of facing Chelsea and Liverpool at the Emirates, while they still have a trip to Old Trafford to negotiate – other than that Wenger’s side have a comfortable looking end to the season.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s old foe United have arguably the toughest run-in with Spurs, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal all left for Van Gaal’s men.
Elsewhere, Liverpool fans should also be acutely aware of challenge of Tottenham Hotspur who have won back-to-back Premier League games since losing the Capital One Cup to Chelsea.
Mauricio Pochettino will be pleased that the toughest fixtures left are just against the two Manchester clubs. And with Harry Kane making a mockery of Premier League defences they still remain very much a threat.
Liverpool’s cause hasn’t been helped with the dour FA Cup quarter final 0-0 with Blackburn meaning the reds will have a trip to Ewood Park around the time they are preparing for Manchester United in the league.
Nevertheless, it’s still in Liverpool’s hands, if they beat United on March 22nd then the momentum will well and truly be with the Anfield club.