With five games remaining, the contest for a place in next season’s Champions League could hardly be closer and hardly more complex.
Manchester City’s two-year ban from European competitions means that, as it stands, fifth place will be enough for a seat at the top table of European football. But not even third-place Leicester City can be certain of qualifying yet.
A decision on City’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport is expected to come at some point in the next fortnight. Until that decision arrives, the four teams directly below them must factor City’s ban into their thinking.
And by calculating the weighted points-per-game of every Premier League side, we can estimate the difficulty of each contender’s run-in.
Current position: 3rd
Opponent PPG: 1.42
Despite looking all but assured of a Champions League place on New Year’s Day, Leicester City have won two of their 11 league games since and burned through their cushion over sixth-place, reducing a 15-point gap to just three
04/07 Crystal Palace (H) – won 3-0
07/07 Arsenal (A)
12/07 Bournemouth (A)
TBA Sheffield United (H)
TBA Tottenham (A)
26/07 Manchester United (H)
Rodgers desperately needs wins but his side’s run-in could be a lot kinder, with four fellow top-half sides in their final six games. After victory over Crystal Palace, the result of their two trips to north London in quick succession could now be crucial.
Sheffield United’s flagging form will provide some encouragement and Bournemouth are free-falling, but having appeared to have a top-four spot sewn up at the turn of the year, Leicester’s fate may only be decided on the final day against United.
Current position: 4th
Opponent PPG: 1.45
Chelsea’s remaining schedule is marginally more difficult than Leicester’s according to weighted points-per-game and the most difficult of the four contenders overall, though would be the easiest if not for one fixture: away to Liverpool.
04/07 Watford (H) – won 3-0
07/07 Crystal Palace (A)
11/07 Sheffield United (A)
TBA Norwich (H)
TBA Liverpool (A)
26/07 Wolves (H)
The champions could be a very different proposition during the penultimate round of fixtures, with little to play for and having already won the title. On the other hand, they may be hoping to break City’s points record and have won every game at Anfield this season.
Bramall Lane is not an easy place to go either nor, to a lesser extent, is Selhurst Park. Frank Lampard will expect six points from the visits of Watford and Norwich to Stamford Bridge, but Wolves are the top flight’s third-best away team and arrive on the final day.
Current position: 5th
Opponent PPG: 1.24
The run-in is kind to United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side face a lot of teams they have already dropped points against this season but, since the signing of Bruno Fernandes in late January, there is evidence that they know how to beat opponents that defend deep.
04/07 Bournemouth (H) – won 5-2
09/07 Aston Villa (A)
13/07 Southampton (H)
TBA Crystal Palace (A)
TBA West Ham (H)
26/07 Leicester (A)
Solskjaer will certainly expect to take six points from Southampton and West Ham next up at Old Trafford after easing to a 5-2 win over Bournemouth. In fact, only Liverpool and City have better home records than United this season. Things will be a little tougher on the road, though maybe not by much.
Coming up against the Premier League’s joint-worst defence at Villa Park should not be too intimidating. Palace are solid and more than capable of taking a result, though United will not fear too much from their schedule until their trip to the King Power.
Current position: 6th
Opponent PPG: 1.36
Wolves have won five of their last six and were unbeaten in eight before Arsenal handed them a 2-0 defeat. It’s been a long, long time since a 5-2 home defeat to Chelsea left Nuno Espirito Santo’s side second-bottom of the table after five games.
04/07 Arsenal (H) – lost 2-0
08/07 Sheffield United (A)
12/07 Everton (H)
TBA Burnley (A)
TBA Crystal Palace (H)
26/07 Chelsea (A)
They could yet get their revenge by denying Lampard’s men a Champions League place on the final weekend, of course. Before then, a run of games against mid-table sides perhaps looks tougher on paper than it actually is.
Crystal Palace are average away from home, Arsenal are worse still and though Everton have improved on the road since Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival, Nuno will target at least seven points from home games for the remainder.
There are certainly easier opponents to visit than Sheffield United and Burnley, though. Like Wolves themselves, both are defensively organised and difficult to beat, and they both took points in the reverse fixtures at Molineux earlier this season.
Who has the toughest run-in?
As Chelsea are the only one of the four contenders still waiting to travel to Anfield, Lampard’s men have the marginally tougher run-in according to weighted points-per-game, though there is very little difference between theirs and Leicester’s.
Wolves top the form table, but United are just behind them and Solskjaer’s side undoubtedly have the most straightforward set of fixtures. If any team is going to make a top-four spot their own before the final weekend, it is them.
Otherwise, it is likely to come down to an epic final weekend where all four contenders are playing against each other, and only then will one of the closest Champions League races in recent memory be decided.