Trevor Steven: Remaining Premier League drama lies in top four race
Manchester City’s visit from Chelsea on Saturday is shaping up to be a Premier League title decider for at least one of the teams involved.
City have really stepped on the accelerator over the last month while the two sides hoping to dethrone them, Chelsea and Liverpool, have begun to lose touch at the top.
The depth of quality in their squad is unmatched and, coupled with the brilliant management of Pep Guardiola, has cut adrift the only clubs who can get close to them.
Chelsea already trail City by 10 points. With Romelu Lukaku voicing his discontent and Timo Werner still not scoring enough, the Blues can’t afford another blow to their hopes.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have also stumbled in recent weeks and now face a run of fixtures without their most reliable sources of goals, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Their absence, at the Africa Cup of Nations, stands to hit Liverpool hard. Jurgen Klopp has been good at using youth but while that can work for a couple of games it’s difficult to sustain.
City on the other hand have lost only Riyad Mahrez to AFCON duty, and are so stacked with options in attacking positions that the Algerian won’t be sorely missed.
They have the hunger and knowledge of winning, and they are the masters of their own title destiny. I can only see the gap at the top growing.
United and Spurs struggling in top four fight
Below the top three is a mish-mash of teams who are blowing hot and cold and in the race for that last Champions League place.
With the title virtually decided, this is the most interesting plot to follow in the second half of the season, and contains two enigmas in Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
I have watched most of United’s recent games and I just don’t see interim manager Ralf Rangnick getting the reaction that many of us expected.
They look so short of togetherness and confidence – Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford in particular – and a plan of how they are trying to play.
The only thing they can take from Monday’s FA Cup third round win over Aston Villa is that they advanced, because their opponents were much more progressive.
Rangnick arrived with lots of gusto about implementing gegenpressing but we haven’t seen any sign of it since his first game or two.
United should in theory be turbo charged but they currently look like they’re spluttering along on a one litre engine – and it’s hard to see how it gets better.
At Tottenham, Antonio Conte has called for everyone – himself included – to be patient as he comes to terms with the scale of the task he has inherited.
I’ve rarely seen him less animated than he was while watching his side easily beaten by Chelsea last week. He could only accept they were inferior in every department.
Spurs don’t have the players that Conte needs. Their performances are still inconsistent and you can’t afford that if you want to finish in the top four.
Dele Alli and Steven Bergwijn need to be replaced with footballers who suit Conte’s style. Tottenham have improved, and with the right deals can still get fourth place.
West Ham United have over-delivered so far yet remain in contention, while Arsenal are currently best placed in the battle of the also-rans.
Mikel Arteta has engineered improvement, even if they showed in defeat at Nottingham Forest on Sunday that he can’t completely trust his players yet.
Arsenal, too, need reinforcements this month, especially up front, where Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s future is uncertain and Alexandre Lacazette isn’t prolific enough.
If they get them, Arteta has enough to sustain his good work and, with United and Spurs riddled with more problems, seize that final Champions League place.
Trevor Steven is a former England footballer who played at two World Cups and two European Championships. @TrevorSteven63.