The 2022/23 Premier League season has reached the business end of the campaign, and the ‘run-in’ will go down to the wire, with five clubs fighting for one final spot in next season’s Champions League.
Inspired by Antonio Conte’s charismatic leadership and firm fist, Tottenham Hotspur pipped Arsenal to a fourth-placed finish in 2021/22 and looked set for success this term following a decent first half of the season.
However, the wheels fell off at the tail-end of the Italian’s tenure, with Spurs dropping points twice in Conte’s last three league games in charge and falling behind Manchester United and Newcastle United in a closely-contested top-four race.
Arsenal and Manchester City have virtually locked down the top-two spots, while the Red Devils seem on their way to securing a coveted third place after winning the last three matches in a row.
Erik ten Hag’s side boast a decent-looking six-point lead on fifth-placed Tottenham, and with a game in hand and a highly-anticipated head-to-head in north London coming up, they could dispatch Spurs from the race.
While Man Utd should waltz away with a third top-four finish in four seasons, it feels like as many as five clubs have legitimate chances to claim the final Champions League qualification spot.
Who is in the race?
In addition to Newcastle and Spurs, Aston Villa, Brighton & Hove Albion and Liverpool have set their sights on finishing as the best of the rest.
A few months ago, Villa seemed on the verge of another mid-table finish, but Unai Emery’s magnificent first season in Birmingham could result in an unexpected Champions League finish.
Emery’s men lag only six points behind fourth-placed Newcastle after racking up five straight Premier League wins for the first time in 25 years, a run bookended by a 3-0 thumping of non-other than the Magpies.
Villa’s resounding success at Villa Park blew the top-four race wide open, allowing Brighton, who have been flirting with Champions League positions all season, to return into contention.
With a game in hand on Newcastle, Roberto De Zerbi’s high-flyers may feel like a seven-point gap isn’t too tall of an order, especially when tensions are sky-high down the final stretch.
Last but not least, despite experiencing their worst season under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool could still make a late top-four push off the back of a 6-1 romping of Leeds United last time out.
Not even a nine-point deficit on the top-four pace is big enough to rule the Reds out of the race, even more so if their intimidating display at Elland Road was a sign of things to come.
The next three rounds are crucial
A lot could be decided in the Premier League over the next week, with Tottenham’s next three fixtures absolutely critical to the top four race.
Caretaker manager Christian Stellini faces an uphill task of guiding Spurs to a second top-four finish in a row after Conte left him to pick up the pieces at what many consider a ‘dysfunctional club.’
While a 2-1 home triumph over Brighton a fortnight ago settled some nerves in the north London camp, an underwhelming 3-2 home loss to Bournemouth last time out reignited the scepticism.
It’s been two months since Tottenham last won back-to-back league matches.
But based on their current position in the table, they’ll need to achieve that feat in the next three rounds to rekindle their top-four bid.
Who will they face?
Spurs’ top-four hopes may not last until May unless they summon the strength that vanished somewhere down the road and find a way to pick up points in their three final matches in April.
Newcastle United (A)
Sunday’s high-stakes encounter at St James’ Park, available to watch online via soccer streams, has all the makings of a ‘top-four six-pointer,’ irrespective of Spurs’ current place in the Premier League standings.
If there was a time this season to pick Eddie Howe’s side as a favourable opponent, it’s now, in the wake of a morale-crushing result at Villa Park that knocked them down from a five-game winning run.
Having not suffered a league double against the Magpies since 2015/16, Tottenham will be looking to avenge a 2-1 defeat from the reverse fixture and steady the ship ahead of the unpleasant challenges waiting in the wings.
With Man United and Brighton not featuring in this round due to their FA Cup commitments, a victory for either side would look even better aesthetically.
If Stellini’s side walk away from Tyneside empty-handed, it would be almost impossible to back Tottenham to bounce back in the remainder of the season with conviction.
A potential defeat could make Newcastle United nervous down the final stretch, especially considering they are at risk of burning out in an overwhelming desire to cut short a two-decade wait for a top-four finish.
Manchester United (H)
Despite enjoying a three-game winning league streak, Manchester United could feel vulnerable after a series of injury setbacks took their toll in Spain on Thursday, with Sevilla humbling the Red Devils 3-0.
But a gut-wrenching Europa League exit could be a blessing in disguise for Ten Hag’s injury-plagued squad ahead of a hectic season finale in the Premier League.
Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final tie against Brighton could show in which direction United’s season is heading and potentially even give Tottenham a much-needed leg-up.
Another non-league disappointment could clip Man Utd’s wings, a chain reaction that may have side effects on their Premier League season and disrupt Ten Hag’s set-up in the long run.
On top of a growing injury crisis at Old Trafford, United’s travel sickness could be another pivotal factor when they take on Harry Kane & co at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
There’s a feeling that this fixture could be a turning point for Tottenham should they take advantage of United’s sizeable injury list and questionable away form.
Liverpool will be keen to forget this season in a hurry, even if they miraculously capture a Champions League finish in what promises to be a memorable season finale.
But regardless of their sub-par season, the Reds are still a force to be reckoned with, especially when they play at a sold-out Anfield, where they last lost to Tottenham in 2011.
Except for a 2-1 loss to Leeds in October, Klopp’s men have gone unbeaten in all their remaining 13 home league games in 2022/23 (W9, D4).
On that basis, it’s hard to expect a downtrodden Spurs to just show up and conquer Anfield, even if the results in the two preceding rounds go the London outfit’s way.
But if they don’t and Tottenham’s freefall continues, Liverpool may have a field day.
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