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Premier League Top-4 Race Is Hotting Up, and It Bodes Well for Next Season

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2016

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 20:  Matteo Darmian of Manchester United celebrates with team mates after scoring his sides second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Old Trafford on April 20, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

There is a strange habit in football, perhaps born of the newsperson’s demand to “throw it forward,” of proclaiming anything good that happens as a precursor of a greater future.

A victory is never a victory; it is a platform. The truth is that, just as often, a success is just a success, perhaps bringing down the curtain on an era rather than heralding the future. So there must always be caution when trying to extrapolate the present into the future. Still, as this extraordinary Premier League season draws to a conclusion, it’s hard not to think of next season with a sense of profound anticipation.

The stars, you suspect, will not align in quite the same way for Leicester City—although there’s no reason why a tight-knit core augmented by the investment UEFA Champions League football will bring couldn’t worry the top six again. But the battle to finish in the top four shows the competitiveness of the fight.

Wednesday's win over Crystal Palace moves us to within a point of fourth-placed Arsenal, who play tonight. #mufc pic.twitter.com/aY5dxwYBpK

— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 21, 2016

Tottenham Hotspur might not quite be mathematically certain of Champions League qualification, but realistically they are, which leaves five teams grappling for two spots. Most intriguingly, of them, the one in the worst form, most doubting of itself, is Arsenal, who have not finished outside the top four since 1996.

A win over West Bromwich Albion at home on Thursday would lift Arsenal above Manchester City into third, four points clear of Manchester United in fifth. A positive result at Sunderland on Sunday would leave them just about safe with home games against Norwich City and Aston Villa to come, although their other away game is at Manchester City.

Tim Ireland/Associated Press

That, though, wouldn’t alter the fact Arsenal have won only four of their last 12 league games, that they went out of the FA Cup to Watford and that their Champions League adventure was once again ended as soon as they met a top-class side—something that must be even more frustrating given hindsight suggests Barcelona were not as formidable as they appeared.

Even the nature of the recent draws against West Ham United and Crystal Palace has been an irritant for Arsenal fans—the familiar pattern of leads lost and of defensive laxity letting opponents off the hook.

The recent template has been for an end-of-season upswing at the Emirates Stadium to create sufficient optimism to tide Arsene Wenger over through the summer. It’s too late for that, though, and this longest of endgames feels as though it’s entered a new phase.

The return of Kevin De Bruyne seems to have pulled Manchester City out of the wobble of February and March, 10 points from the four games since the March 20 defeat in the Manchester derby making them look the likeliest to take the fourth Champions League slot. Their fixture list is relatively kind too: Stoke City at home, Southampton and Swansea City away and that game against Arsenal.

The danger is if the Champions League becomes a distraction—while Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Newcastle United demonstrated that their fluency can still be disrupted relatively easily.

The team playing best of those in contention is probably Liverpool, seven points behind City with a game in hand. The defeat at Southampton before March's international break, having been 2-0 up at half-time, could prove costly—although there is the possibility of securing a Champions League spot by winning the UEFA Europa League.

As injuries once again mount up—Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Divock Origi have all suffered serious problems of late—European competition will surely take precedence. That said, Liverpool’s fixture list is relatively gentle, with only Newcastle of the five teams the Reds will encounter having anything left to fight for.

But whether Liverpool qualify for the Champions league or not, the performances of April, including Wednesday night's 4-0 thrashing of Everton, have offered a glimpse of what their fans can expect from a Jurgen Klopp side in the future—and it looks extremely bright.

Realistically, the side most likely to pinch a top-four spot off City or Arsenal is Manchester United. Per Lewis Jones of Sky Sports, manager Louis van Gaal said after Wednesday's 2-0 win over Crystal Palace that United probably need to win all four of their remaining games to reach the top four, which probably isn’t quite true—the gap to City is only two points.

Their run-in sees games against Leicester City and West Ham United, as well as a Norwich City side fighting relegation and Bournemouth. And there’s the FA Cup to deal with as well.

Jon Super/Associated Press

There’s also the paradox that some United fans probably don’t want their team to finish in the top four as that may mean Van Gaal stays on for another season. That, admittedly, is nothing to the contorted emotions that could be provoked should City beat Real Madrid and end up meeting Bayern in the Champions League final with Pep Guardiola needing to win to validate his time in Munich and needing to lose to secure Champions League football for himself next season.

West Ham, unbeaten in nine but having drawn five of those games, face West Brom, Swansea, Stoke and United. With three points more to make up, they probably do need to win all four of those games to have a chance of taking fourth. They will reflect on a string of key refereeing decisions that have gone against them recently and wonder how different things may have been if even two of their draws had been turned into wins.

At the same time, there are numerous statistical models that suggest West Ham have overperformed this season, shared by Eastbridge. It’s possible that next season will bring a reversion, but it’s also possible that with investment and the wave of optimism the move to the Olympic Stadium will bring, West Ham will be even stronger next season.

But even suppose West Ham do regress, the top end next season will still feature a bright young Tottenham (who may be champions), a Manchester City under the leadership of Guardiola, a Liverpool resurgent under Klopp and a Chelsea looking to bounce back under Antonio Conte, as well as a United perhaps under new management, Arsenal being Arsenal and Leicester.

This season’s race for fourth suggests next season’s title race could be the most competitive yet. For once, this season’s intrigue may be a guide to the future.

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