Sky Sports’ Paul Merson gives his verdict on the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four.
With Manchester City continuing to pull clear at the summit, Manchester United, Leicester, Chelsea, West Ham, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, Tottenham and Arsenal all have hopes of securing a top-four finish.
As it stands, 15 points divide second-placed Man Utd and 10th-placed Arsenal – while the Gunners remain 11 points shy of fourth spot and are just about in contention to qualify for the Champions League with 13 games left in their season.
So, who does the Magic Man think will be playing Champions League football next season?
Here he goes through each contender before prediction who will finish in the top four…
Games played: 25
Merson says: “You’d like to think Manchester United will get into the top four from here. However, it’s all still so tight with plenty of points to play for in the coming weeks. All it takes is a really poor dip in form and you can quickly find yourself down in sixth with the games coming so thick and fast.
“United have three consecutive away games against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Manchester City and a bad run, coupled with some good results for the teams around them and things can change. They can change quickly in this league at the moment. That being said, if United beat Chelsea you’d have to think Thomas Tuchel’s side won’t catch them.
“United have the platform and they should secure a top-four finish. Are they looking up rather than behind them?
“I don’t really get Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saying the title race is not over. A few weeks ago, when they were in a better position, he said they weren’t ready to win the title. Now, they are further back, and it’s not done. I’m really not sure what game he is playing?”
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Games played: 25
Merson says: “Leicester fell away last year when looking like securing a Champions League spot, but I don’t think that will happen this time around. They look a really good outfit under Brendan Rodgers.
“The club has upset the apple cart before, and I’ll think they’ll do it again this season. They are a really good team.”
Games played: 25
Merson says: “Twenty-five games in and West Ham are in the top four. It’s phenomenal what David Moyes has done.
“This is not just five or six games; this is 25 football matches. That’s a big chunk of the season so to get them where they are now is an absolutely phenomenal achievement,
“It was a great result for them against Spurs. At the end of the day, they are going to have times when they are hanging on in games, but it was job done for the Hammers. They defended well, put their bodies on the line and rode their luck, which is what you need. You make your luck, though.
“I just look at West Ham’s fixtures and they have Man City away next where you don’t give them much of a chance. Then it is Leeds at home which is another hard game. Then it’s Manchester United, Leicester and Arsenal at home and Wolves away. They are hard football matches, so it will be difficult for Moyes’ men.
“I said on transfer deadline day I thought Jesse Lingard was the signing of the window. To get someone of his quality from Manchester United is a great coup for West Ham. He was always going to be better than what they had so it was a great signing
“At the moment, he is doing well, and he could well prove to be the difference, who knows?”
Games played: 25
Merson says: “Chelsea have had kind fixtures in recent weeks, but you still have to beat these teams. Liverpool have had relatively kind fixtures, but they didn’t beat Newcastle, Brighton, Burnley or West Brom. You have to put these teams away and to be fair, Chelsea have done that.
“What follows easy games, though? Hard games and Chelsea face that now.
“Chelsea play Manchester United and Liverpool and then they’ve got Everton, who are flying. Leeds away is in there too, which is a hard game, and in the middle of that is two games against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Before you know it, they could get nothing out of those four games, and they are completely out of it. But, if they can get results against United and Liverpool and can beat Everton and Leeds, then they’ve got a far easier run of games and then they are favourites. It’s madness.
“This period now and until the end of March is a defining time for Tuchel and Chelsea. It’s the be-all and end-all of their season, without a doubt. The real test starts now for this Chelsea side. They have five or six matches coming up which will define their whole season.”
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Games played: 25
Merson says: “Liverpool need to get back to winning ways, and fast!
“They’ve got Sheffield United next and then Chelsea and Fulham at home. The game against RB Leipzig in the Champions League should be finished, so that should mean they will be able to rest players when the second leg comes around. Then there are games against Wolves and Arsenal.
“They’ve got some nice fixtures coming up and they need to get back on track.
“Their luck at the moment is rotten. Ozan Kabak came in from Germany and wasn’t very good against Leicester but was good against Leipzig. He then got lost for the first goal in the Merseyside derby. It’s hard. And now, Jordan Henderson’s not going to be playing and they will end up with two kids at the back.
“I don’t care what anyone says, the injuries have made a huge difference. Having the injury list they’ve had will affect any club and Liverpool have had injuries to big-time players.
“If they don’t get into the top four it will be a disaster for Liverpool. It will be a nightmare, but at the moment, I still can’t see Liverpool not being in the top four.”
Games played: 24
Merson says: “If there is a difference for Everton this season, it will be Carlo Ancelotti.
“Fair play to Everton for what they did at Anfield at the weekend, but it just shows you where Liverpool are, at the moment. I watched the last couple of games and Fulham and Man City ripped Everton to shreds. Man City played in second gear and Fulham, who are in the bottom three, gave them the run-around.
“So, to go there, do what they did, defending brilliantly and holding on for a brilliant result, I thought it was real good management. He brought Dominic Calvert-Lewin on, knowing his side needed a second goal and it worked a treat. You also have to give credit where credit is due, I thought Jordan Pickford was outstanding. He was solid and made some really good saves. He was England’s number one and that’s what I expect from him every week. If he doesn’t have the game, he has then I think Liverpool probably get a result.
“Everton have got some really good fixtures coming up, but we are talking about Everton here. They are very inconsistent.
“They go and put a performance in like they did against Fulham at home after scoring three at Man Utd and hitting five past Spurs in the FA Cup. Then they go to Anfield and win so they need to go and get that sorted. They need to find some consistency and if they can, with the games they’ve got against Southampton, West Brom, Chelsea, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Brighton.
“The Chelsea game aside, they are winnable football matches for Everton. After that, there are only seven matches left in the season. They have got the nicest fixtures coming up out of every team, but they have to be consistent. You can’t keep throwing in a Fulham at home result.
“These chances aren’t coming along again. You have to take advantage now. Liverpool are not going to be this bad again, Chelsea will be better again next season, Man City are Man City and Man Utd keep on improving. You’d like to think Tottenham will get better, plus there will be crowds back next season.
“This chance is not coming along again and there are reasons for that.
Games played: 23
Merson says: “Aston Villa have got no chance!
“Let’s be honest, watching them yesterday, if Jack Grealish isn’t playing, they are not far off being a relegation team.
“If Grealish left at the end of the season, they’d be back fighting where they were last year. I have no doubt about and there is no shame in that.
“We’ve seen a team of Liverpool’s stature, with international footballers all over the pitch, crumble without Virgil van Dijk. Without him, they are a completely different team.
“Villa without Grealish are a completely different team and there’s nothing wrong with that because that haven’t got the players Liverpool have got.
“But if he’s not fit then Villa re not winning too many football matches.”
Games played: 24
Merson says: “If Tottenham win their game in hand, they are back in the mix in terms of points. But the problem is winning that game in hand after a run after a run of five defeats in their last six league games.
“But you look at their fixtures coming up and you think they could go on a role. They’ve got Burnley at home, Fulham away and Crystal Palace at home. They are all winnable games and if you get nine points you are right back in it.
“Then it is Arsenal and Aston Villa, so they do have some nice fixtures coming up.
“When you are in this position you just have to keep going one game at a time and you see where it takes you. As I said with Liverpool the other week, they are out of the title race but if you win your next six games you can have another look. That’s exactly what Man City did. They won six straight games and Liverpool hardly picked up a point. All of a sudden that’s a big turn around in points.
“Spurs just have to consolidate and take it at a game at a time. Get a few wins ad see where it takes them because the gaps that are there now can disappear very quickly with a run of wins. That’s the nature of this league this season.
“At the moment, I think the gap is too big for Spurs, but we’ve seen other teams do it. A run of wins can change things in terms of confidence and the table, and that’s what Spurs need to hold onto. Confidence is a massive thing in football and for me, it goes hand in hand with luck. If you can get some confidence back and a have a bit of luck go your way, you can be unstoppable.”
Games played: 25
Merson says: “I can’t see Arsenal doing anything between now and the end of the season to get into the top four.
“I played at Arsenal for a good number of years a long time ago and it is just a phenomenal football club. It’s a Rolls Royce of a football club but when you look where they are now, it’s just hard to watch.
“Man City used to be a million miles away and talk about turning things on its head, they are so far ahead of Arsenal. The only thing that can give you hope if you are an Arsenal fan is that you can watch City and think things can turn around.
“I was so disappointed yesterday. It’s so easy for me to sit and say Arsenal should have had a right go at Man City because I know you can end up losing 4-0 or 5-0, and then it looks an awful result. But if you look at Arsenal’s performance, they looked out of their depth and that was really worrying.
“When they got to 75 minutes and were only a goal down, they had to have a right go. But it looked like the players just didn’t have that belief. It seems a long time ago now and it was a long time ago that Arsenal had that. They had that fear factor for teams playing them. I found it a really hard watch.
“It’s probably now time to focus on the Europa League for Arsenal, but they’d do well to win that with the way things are going. There are some really good teams in that competition – some good English teams as well.
“It’s a real massive rebuild job at the Emirates Stadium and I think it’s going to take a long, long time. That’s unless they’ve got some money from somewhere and they have a right go, but we’ve seen Chelsea have a right go and look where they are. We are talking about whether they will get in the top four and that was a lot of money, so there are no guarantees.
“It’s a really hard one to take for Arsenal at the moment.”
And finally, Merson’s top-four verdict…
Paul Merson’s Premier League top four: Man City, Man Utd, Leicester City and Liverpool
Merson says: “Man City are in, obviously – that’s the easy part!
“Next, I have to stick with Manchester United and Leicester, who are a very good team. The top three now will stay there, in my opinion.
“After that, this is so difficult. You know me, I don’t like to sit on the fence, but I’m finding it really hard to pick a team for the final spot.
“Despite their superb season so far, I don’t see West Ham lasting the distance, and that means a spot is up for grabs. Moyes’ side have been brilliant, but I saw enough in that second half against Spurs to tell me it’s just too much for them to do in the reminder of the season.
“Everton have got the fixture list to make a challenge, but I do worry about their consistency.
“For me, it’s between Chelsea and Liverpool for that final spot.
“If Chelsea have a good March, that’s it, they are in. But, I worry about Chelsea scoring enough goals. I can’t see them blowing teams away.
“I’ve always said Liverpool will make it but when push comes to shove, it so hard to stick with them, at the moment. It’s hard to get away from their form and the fact the luck is not with them.
“You look at the games they’ve lost, and you look at the games they have coming up and wonder if they can turn it around. They should beat Sheffield United but there is doubt there, especially with no defenders.
“I’ve shown so much faith in them, but the players keep dropping like flies. The one player I want on the pitch out of all of their players at the moment is Jordan Henderson. When things are not going well, he’s the leader. He’s the player that gets people going. With him now being out of the team it’s a bit of a worry.
“It feels like I’m just going with the name and not looking at the performances and results. The teams they haven’t beaten is very worrying. I don’t know why, but I have to stick with Liverpool. Please don’t ask me why but I’m keeping the faith with Jurgen Klopp and his side.”
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