Just eight games remain in the 2012/13 Barclays Premier League season, Luke Sale runs his rule over the tight battles for the final two UEFA Champions League positions for next season and the dramatic relegation battle.
The dramatic of final day of last season that saw Manchester City steal the Premier League title from fierce rivals Manchester United in the final minute of the season has not been repeated. Not even close. United has been brilliant and will be deserving winners.
This year, the must-watch action is elsewhere as the season draws to a close.
Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are vying for the final two spots in the top four and therefore next seasons Champions League and the riches that come with it.
Everton and Liverpool cannot be ruled out either and will be hoping for slip-ups above them.
A similar battle is at the other end of the table, however in this case six clubs are real candidates for being replaced in the Premier League next season.
For Reading and QPR, the final games are about being the architects of their own great escape. It has happened before.
Aston Villa, Wigan, Sunderland and Newcastle are the other clubs in the relegation picture. Currently it looks as if just one of these four will go down but there are still a handful of six-pointers to be played that should not be missed.
The London European Battle
Tottenham (Currently 3rd, 57 points, 31 games)
Still to play: Everton (Home), Chelsea (Away), Manchester City (H), Wigan (A), Southampton (H), Stoke (A), Sunderland (H).
Chelsea (4th, 55 points, 30 games)
Still to play: Sunderland (H), Tottenham (H), Fulham (A), Liverpool (A), Swansea (H), Manchester United (A), Aston Villa (A), Everton (H).
Arsenal (5th, 53 points, 30 games)
Still to play: West Brom (A), Norwich City (H), Everton (H), Fulham (A), Manchester United (H), QPR (A), Wigan (H), Newcastle (A).
It was about this time last year when Tottenham began to string together poor result after poor result. In the end it lost Harry Redknapp his job. Andre Villas-Boas has come in and got Spurs into a similar position to last year and into the quarter-finals of the Europa League largely on the back of consistent brilliance from Gareth Bale and Jan Vertonghen. I can see them winning at least three of their remaining games against Sunderland, Southampton and Wigan. While all three points against Everton, Chelsea or Manchester City will be hard to come by after losing the reverse fixture to these sides. Europa League elimination might have to be suffered to freshen up their squad to pick up at least one win from those three matches.
In southwest London, Chelsea will be targeting their four remaining home games to bring them the maximum 12 points in order to avoid needing multiple wins on the road to get themselves into the four. Their away games at Manchester United and Liverpool come just days after potential away fixtures in the Europa League, a certain test for any squad. They certainly have the quality needed to claim one of the two spots, but the man management abilities of interim manager Rafael Benitez will be just as big a key as the ability of the squad players to put in a performance when needed.
Despite sitting fifth at present, Arsenal will back themselves to climb into third or fourth purely because of the ‘advantage’ they hold of not being participants in any European competition. They are able to focus and prepare solely on the Premier League. Their last three games are against sides that are likely to still be battling for Premier League survival, points before these games are crucial. Depending on the squad Manchester United bring to the Emirates on April 28th, Arsenal may have won five straight before travelling to QPR.
Everton and Liverpool meanwhile will need to defeat the teams above them and take advantage of at least two cases of dropped points from the London trio. I am not discounting this entirely but I just can’t see this group being caught, only re-arranged.
3rd Chelsea – 72 points
4th Arsenal – 70 points
5th Tottenham – 69 points
6th Liverpool – 65 points
7th – Everton – 65 points
Not to be missed
Tottenham vs. Everton – 7th April
Chelsea vs. Tottenham – TBA
Arsenal vs. Everton – 16th April
Tottenham vs. Manchester City – 21st April
Liverpool vs. Chelsea – 21st April
Arsenal vs. Manchester United – 28th April
Manchester United vs. Chelsea – 4th May
Liverpool vs. Everton – 4th May
Chelsea vs. Everton – 19th May
The Relegation Battle
Reading (20th, 23 points, 31 games)
Still to play: Southampton (H), Liverpool (H), Norwich (A), QPR (H), Fulham (A), Manchester City (H), West Ham (A).
QPR (19th, 23 points, 31 games)
Still to play: Wigan (H), Everton (A), Stoke (H), Reading (A), Arsenal (H), Newcastle (H), Liverpool (A)
Aston Villa (18th, 30 points, 31 games)
Still to play: Stoke (A), Fulham (H), Manchester United (A), Sunderland (H), Norwich (A), Chelsea (H), Wigan (A).
Wigan (17th, 30 points, 30 games)
Still to play: QPR (A), Manchester City (A), West Ham (A), Tottenham (H), West Brom (A), Swansea (H), Arsenal (A), Aston Villa (H)
Sunderland (16th, 31 points, 31 games)
Still to play: Chelsea (A), Newcastle (A), Everton (H), Aston Villa (A), Stoke (H), Southampton (H), Tottenham (A).
Newcastle (15th, 33 points, 31 games)
Still to play: Fulham (H), Sunderland (H), West Brom (A), Liverpool (H), West Ham (A), QPR (A), Arsenal (H).
Reading and QPR need something remarkable to get out of the hole they’re both in. The acquisitions QPR made before the start of the season suggest progress was their aim and I for one wouldn’t have looked twice if they were mid-table.
Expect a mass exodus if they are one of three to disappear down to the Championship, which I expect they will be. The same goes with Reading. The magic mark of 40 points usually needed survival has been reached is a long way off for the pair, meaning only one more defeat and one more draw can be afforded. I just can’t see that happening.
Before defeat to Liverpool last weekend, Aston Villa had won consecutive games for the first time this season and looked to be finally finding some form. Their home game against fellow strugglers Sunderland on the 29th of this month will be pivotal, it is a stand alone mid-week night fixture that I’m sure will have goals and lots of nerves.
Wigan will be hoping to continue their improved away form this season (14 out of 30 points have come away from home) as they face three consecutive away trips to begin their run-in. Wigan always seem to find something extra in the final ten games of the season to reach safety and I’m expecting no different. Although their remaining home games are against sides well in the top half of the table, if they don’t find something extra, they will be in big trouble. Their last day game against Aston Villa is looming as win or go down fixture.
Sunderland is in big trouble right now. They have won just one of their last eight games and have slid into relegation trouble. The board has seen the warning signs and parted company with manager Martin O’Neill and brought in Paolo di Canio . An up and coming manager with no previous Premier League experience, it appears to be a questionable decision.
Until the players have played for Di Canio, no judgements can be made on whether or not it is the right decision. If he steers the Black Cats away to safety he will have endeared himself to the supporters, if not everyone will wonder what might have been without the change. They should be targeting home games against Stoke and Southampton as must wins while hoping to pick up a point elsewhere.
Newcastle has struggled all season if you discount the few games in early February when their new signings from the January transfer window wanted to make their mark. They have looked nothing like the side that finished fifth last season in the Premier League and have been performing solidly to reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League this season. They don’t have a big enough squad to compete on the European stage and domestically. Papiss Cisse’ has not re-created the brilliance he brought last term and the loss of Demba Ba to Chelsea mid-season could prove costly. Their fierce rivals Sunderland could drag them into further trouble in two weeks time; this is looming as their biggest game of the season. Europa League elimination could be a blessing in disguise.
15th Newcastle 38 points
16th Wigan 35 points
17th Sunderland 33 points
18th Aston Villa – 32 points
19th QPR – 29 points
20th Reading – 25 points
Not to be missed
Reading vs. Southampton – 6th April
QPR vs. Wigan – 7th April
Newcastle vs. Sunderland – 19th April
Reading vs. QPR – 28th April
Aston Villa vs. Sunderland – 29th April
QPR vs. Newcastle – 12th May
Wigan vs. Aston Villa – 19th May
Luke Sale is a second-year Bachelor of Sports Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @lukesale1