TOP FOUR IS A STEP TOO FAR FOR JOSE

As the race to reach the Cham­pi­ons League hots up, fix­ture chaos could cost United dear. Here’s why . . .

Daily Mail - - Football - IAN LADYMAN Foot­ball Editor @Ian_Lady­man_DM

WITH Chelsea 10 points clear at the top of the Premier league, it would ap­pear the iden­tity of the 2017 cham­pi­ons is al­ready known.

But what about the fight for the Cham­pi­ons league places that is rag­ing be­neath An­to­nio Conte’s im­pe­ri­ous team?

As we head into the in­ter­na­tional break, Tot­ten­ham are in pos­ses­sion of se­cond spot af­ter yet an­other home win while Manch­ester United’s un­beaten run has finally seen them move up from sixth place.

And with ever­ton just six points be­hind liver­pool — with a Mersey­side derby to come a week on satur­day — we can’t rule out ron­ald Koe­man’s im­prov­ing team ei­ther.

With a quar­ter of the sea­son to go, any­thing could hap­pen. here, Sports­mail tries to make sense of it all:

TOT­TEN­HAM 2nd, 59pts. Form: WLWWW THE GOOD NEWS

MAURI­CIO PO­CHET­TINO’S team are in form, they are not in europe, and have the mo­ti­va­tion to win ev­ery re­main­ing home game be­fore White hart lane is pulled down at the end of the sea­son.

With a seven-point lead over Manch­ester United in fifth, it would be some fall from grace if they were not to make the top four.

The fix­ture list is in their favour, too. Over a two-week pe­riod at the start of May, spurs face Ar­se­nal, West ham and United but be­fore then they have a run of winnable games that could see them with one foot over the line be­fore Arsene Wenger’s team travel down the seven sis­ters road on April 30.

THE BAD NEWS

Tot­ten­ham are not the same team with­out harry Kane. Their pro­lific cen­tre for­ward is hop­ing he can re­turn early from in­jury af­ter the in­ter­na­tional break but would be ad­vised not to rush. With no nat­u­ral re­place­ment, Tot­ten­ham could ar­guably cope with­out him at Burn­ley a week on satur­day but be­yond that his re­turn to health will be cru­cial. spurs also have the mem­ory of last sea­son’s late col­lapse to deal with. Will it haunt them or make them stronger this time round? We will see.

KEY STAT

SPURS are yet to lose at home in the league — the only pre­vi­ous top- flight sea­son they have re­mained un­beaten at home was 1964-65 (21 games, 0 de­feats).

PRE­DIC­TION: Third MANCH­ESTER CITY 3rd, 57pts. Form: WWWDD THE GOOD NEWS

CITY have not lost in the Premier league for more than two months and have im­proved since their wob­bles of mid-win­ter.

They have key play­ers fit and fir­ing — David silva (be­low) and leroy sane in par­tic­u­lar — and in Willy Ca­ballero a goal­keeper who has taken an op­por­tu­nity pre­sented by Clau­dio Bravo’s prob­lems by rais­ing the lev­els of his own dis­plays.

City’s squad also has a depth that is not re­ally matched by any­body else’s and, once con­sec­u­tive games against Ar­se­nal and Chelsea are out of the way, they face a run to the fin­ish line that can­not help but en­cour­age them.

THE BAD NEWS

COACH Pep Guardi­ola says his team’s prob­lems lie in at­tack but they don’t. It’s City’s ten­dency to leak goals that holds them back and that is a prob­lem that does not look like be­ing solved un­til the sum­mer trans­fer win­dow. In nine league matches against the cur­rent top seven, City have shipped 16 goals so far. next up are Ar­se­nal and Chelsea away.

KEY STAT

CITY are un­beaten in seven league matches — their long­est streak un­der Pep Guardi­ola.

PRE­DIC­TION: Se­cond LIVER­POOL

4th, 56pts. Form: WLWWD

THE GOOD NEWS

When it clicks for liver­pool, there is no­body more ca­pa­ble of tak­ing teams apart and re­cent per­for­mances against Tot­ten­ham, Ar­se­nal and Manch­ester City (two wins and a draw) should give Jur­gen Klopp’s team con­fi­dence to push on. Klopp is not the kind of man­ager to trans­mit pres­sure to his play­ers, ei­ther.

THE BAD NEWS

The form of their best player Philippe Coutinho should worry them. When the lit­tle Brazil­ian doesn’t fire then liver­pool can struggle for in­spi­ra­tion. Coutinho was taken off against Burn­ley and again at City on sun­day. liver­pool’s run-in fea­tures a stack of games against mid­dle-rank­ing teams who will sit deep and smother their op­po­nents. They will need Coutinho then.

KEY STAT

LIVER­POOL have taken 20 points in 10 games against the top six this sea­son, but just 19 points in 10 games against the bot­tom six.

PRE­DIC­TION: Fourth MANCH­ESTER UNITEDD 5th, 52pts. Form: DWWDW THE GOOD NEWS

NO man­ager in the Premier league has per­formed bet­ter than Jose Mour­inho over the win­ter and he is the best weapon United have as they try to reel in their ri­vals. yyou can see the anx­i­ety writ­ten over the faces of Guardi­ola and Arsene Wenger but you don’t see that in Mour­inho. United are also un­beaten in the league since midOc­to­ber and af­ter liver­pool and Ar­se­nal dropped points at the week­end, their great ri­vals now have their top-four des­tiny in their own hands for the first time.

THE BAD NEWS

GIVEN their fix­ture sched­ule and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the europa league, some­thing has to give and I think it will. United still have to travel to Tot­ten­ham, Ar­se­nal and City and I think that will get them in the end.

KEY STAT

MANCH­ESTER United ended the week­end in­side the top five for the first time in 184 days (since septem­ber 16, 2016).

PRE­DIC­TION: Sixth

AR­SE­NAL

6th, 50pts. Form: LLWLL THE GOOD NEWS

AR­SE­NAL al­ways fin­ish the sea­son well, usu­ally when it’s too late in terms of tro­phies. It is very pos­si­ble that this will hap­pen again.

THE BAD NEWS

There is too much con­fu­sion and un­cer­tainty around Ar­se­nal at the mo­ment. It seems that Wenger will stay but what about play­ers such as Alexis sanchez and Me­sut Ozil? Ar­se­nal don’t look like a team who have any kind of col­lec­tive will and un­der­stand­ing any more and it is likely they will now pour all their emo­tional en­ergy into their FA Cup semi-fi­nal against City.

KEY STAT

AR­SE­NAL have lost four out of five league games for the first time since April 1995 (un­der care­taker man­ager ste­wart hous­ton).

PRE­DIC­TION: Fifth EVER­TON 7th, 50pts. Form: DWLWW THE GOOD NEWS

KOE­MAN and his play­erss have en­joyed a sea­son of real progress and any­thing they achieve from here is a bonus. That means there should be an ab­sence of pres­sure and with ross Barkley and romelu lukaku (be­low) on form, they have the ca­pac­ity to hurt teams. ever­ton know that a win in the derby on April 1 would scare the life out of their neigh­bours.

THE BAD NEWS

EVER­TON have played more games than any­one but liver­pool and that will prob­a­bly prove cru­cial. They are on a great run and started the sea­son brightly. But 10 games that yielded seven points be­tween septem­ber and De­cem­ber will come back to haunt them.

KEY STAT

EVER­TON have had more dif­fer­ent scor­ers than any other side in the top flight this sea­son (15).

PRE­DIC­TION: Sev­enth

GETTY IM­AGES

On the up: Lin­gard (left) cel­e­brates with Young on Sun­day af­ter fir­ing United to fifth

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