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Breaking Down the Premier League Stretch Run, Top to Bottom

Friday 31st March 2017
Thanks to some clubs' progression in the FA Cup and/or Europe, there is a slight imbalance in the league table as top flight English clubs welcome back players from international break and prepare for the Premier League stretch run. Nine clubs have played twenty-nine matches, eight have played twenty-eight, and three just twenty-seven.
Manchester United, Arsenal, and Southampton's games in hand give them an advantageous opportunity to move up the standings. Yet, since the Premier League will not extend its schedule to assist teams busy in other competitions, United (Europa League) and Arsenal (FA Cup) are handicapped when it comes to both recovery and preparation time between contests. On the other hand, Liverpool and Hull especially, considering their current positions, have fewer opportunities to gain ground but more time between matches to make every result count.

Here is a breakdown, from top to bottom, on where each club stands and what must (or must not) happen to reach their desired goals.

The League Title
Can you say foregone conclusion? It would take an epic disaster for the Blues not to be crowned league champions this season. Their nearest competitor, Spurs, are ten points back. Both have played twenty-eight matches. Any combination of  twenty-one points earned by Chelsea or dropped by Tottenham would place the trophy in Antonio Conte's hands. The Italian should be happy to clear the more difficult matches off the deck early. Man City visit Stamford Bridge on 5 April. The Blues travel to Old Trafford on the 16th. The 22nd brings their only distraction, an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Spurs. Basically, Chelsea's run-in is like waiting for Christmas morning to arrive to open the X-Box you know your mother has hidden in the attic.

Champions League Automatic Qualification

Whoever finishes second or third will join Chelsea in the 2017-18 Champions League group stage draw.
Obviously, Spurs have the inside track for direct entry into the UCL group stage next season. It won't be nearly so easy to secure as Chelsea's title, however. There is no ten-point cushion in this race. Liverpool are fourth, only three points behind but with an extra match played. United have a game in hand, but assuming they win it, would still be four behind Mauricio Pochettino's side. Spurs' schedule doesn't heat up until the final day in April, when Arsenal come to White Hart Lane. There's a trip to Old Trafford a fortnight later. Six points in those contests would go a long way to securing European nights for another season. Overall, twenty-five points is the magic number for Tottenham, either taken themselves or dropped by 'Pool.
For Pep Guardiola's City, the number is twenty-seven, as they sit third, only a point up on the Reds. The Citizens will have to do their best Kool-Aid man impersonation when league play resumes. Arsenal and Chelsea away are their first two matches. Then it's a Hull City side desperately fighting relegation, a trickier prospect than it appears on paper. Next up are trips to St Mary's and Wembley, the latter for the FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal. Four days later, United commute to the Etihad. If the Citizens can break through that brick wall, it should be downhill to June.

Champions League Qualifying Stages
You may have noticed Jürgen Klopp's side haven't been mentioned as being on the schedule for any clubs above them in the table. They aren't. The Scousers have also concluded business with United and Arsenal. An easy stretch run is offset by having played more matches than their rivals. Still, their most difficult test will come right out of the gate in the Merseyside Derby against resurgent Everton. While there won't be any six-point matches to help them secure a direct Champions League place, if they can handle business, the Reds will be able to drop a little MC Hammer on frustrated rivals.
Even though Liverpool are above them in fourth place, it's Manchester United that have the inside track to qualification for the Champions League group stages, courtesy two games in hand they possess over their bitter rivals. If the Red Devils win out their remaining eleven matches, there is nothing the Anfield crew can do but start booking flights for Thursday evening junkets to the continent. Of course, with Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Everton all on United's calendar, winning out is much easier said than done. Then there's the Europa League, wherein hoisting the trophy will earn United a Champions League place, perhaps at a rival's expense. That's either an alternate solution or a healthy distraction. Either way, we're certain to hear more moaning from José Mourinho regarding fixture congestion. Anything to keep Roy Keane in a bad mood.
Meanwhile, Arsenal are side by side with Liverpool as next in line for having their own destiny in hand should Mourinho's squad slip. The Gunners are on twenty-seven matches played, level with United in that category, but two points behind. Both they and 'Pool can reach eighty-three points on the season. United, currently behind the pair on goal difference, are looking at thirty-two points taken or dropped as their magic number. Arsenal can break United's spell with a win on 6 May at the Emirates. First, however, they'll need to sort out their own house, resolve the turmoil surrounding Arsène Wenger's future, not to mention Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez's contract extensions, then rediscover their form. Oh, and there are also matches against Tottenham, Everton, and City to manage, the last both in the league and FA Cup. Someone buy poor Danny Glendenning a pint.
Realistically, Everton's best chance is to qualify for the Europa League. It isn't much as chances go, but it's better than their Champions League prospects. The Toffees sit level on points with Arsenal, will not be distracted by FA Cup or European obligations, and have been playing well recently. Unfortunately, they've also played two more games than the Gunners and still must face Liverpool, United, Chelsea, and Arsenal. Can they win all those matches, making up enough ground to finish fourth? Would you put money on it? In the immortal words of George HW Bush... No, it's Europa League or bust for the Toffees. With Man United having won the EFL Cup, a sixth place finish would do the trick. That still involves tripping up one team above them, which is possible if they can match the Gunners result for result, the Londoners lose their two games in hand, and Everton come out on top in their season-ending clash. So, yeah. Easy as pie.

An Eeny Weeny Teeny Tiny Chance to Catch Two Clubs for a Europa League Spot
West Brom have only nine matches remaining. They are seven points behind Arsenal and Everton. The Baggies play neither. Tony Pulis' side do face United, Liverpool, and Chelsea. I suppose there's an outside chance. You know, like someone standing shirtless outside in Antarctica has a chance. It really depends on your definition of the word. Sorry, Baggies faithful, it's time to look at a few players from the youth squad.

At the other end of the spectrum...

Watch Your Step
Sam Allardyce hasn't done much with Crystal Palace since taking over for Alan Pardew. Still, it's been sufficient to put some distance between the London side and Hull City. Four points and a game in hand is normally a strong position at the bottom, where points are few and far between. Unfortunately, the scheduling gods have not been kind to Big Sam. Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, City, and United all lay in wait. Leicester, who are suddenly looking like a top-of-the-table side again, are also on tap, as is Southampton away. Palace have by far the most difficult fixture list of any club in the relegation fight. The only two matches from their remaining ten where you might fancy the Eagles are when Burnley, much better at home, come to Selhurst Park, and the season's penultimate match, when Hull also visit. The Clarets play five of nine at their Turf Moor fortress, where they have picked up sixty-nine percent of points on offer, twenty-nine of their thirty-two overall. Leicester have caught fire under caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare, going iambic pentameter on all comers since Claudio Ranieri was given the Julius Caesar treatment. Only Watford, among clubs just above Palace, offer promise of dropping between them and danger. Regardless, Allardyce's squad must find some results to help it happen. As matters stand, twenty-five points dropped by Boro or earned by Palace will further Big Sam's reputation as a rescue specialist.
Swansea are in greater peril from Hull than are Crystal Palace. The Swans and Tigers both have played twenty-nine with just three points separating the two. Paul Clement's side have lost four matches on the trot when traveling but start the Premier League stretch run welcoming Boro to the Liberty Stadium. Tottenham come calling after that. Four points from those two contests would exert significant pressure on Hull. A trip to Old Trafford and visits from Everton and West Brom are also on Clement's card but there are points to be had in their other four fixtures. Twenty-six is the magic number for the Welsh club to stay up.

Give Us A Hand
Marco Silva has Hull City playing more positively since taking over for Mike Phelan in January. The results haven't been there but neither has the chance to overhaul the woefully undermanned side the Portuguese inherited. Nevertheless, the club has an excellent chance to pull themselves out of their hole. Remaining matches include Watford, Palace, Boro, and Sunderland. Twelve points are possible, one might argue necessary, given the season's final match is against top-four side Spurs.
Middlesbrough are, appropriately, middle child among the three in the drop zone. A game in hand over Hull gives Boro greater opportunity to accrue points. Victories over Swansea, Hull, and Sunderland could lift them out of danger. Like Hull, Steve Agnew's lads must work quickly. A trip to Anfield on Match Day 38 would be less concerning with safety already procured.
Of all the clubs threatened with relegation, Sunderland are the only one that stayed the course with their manager. Sometimes patience isn't a virtue. Jermaine Defoe scored for England in their victory over Lithuania on Sunday. He hadn't for the Black Cats since an away victory over Palace on 4 February. No one has. Not in any of the four matches during the intervening fifty-two days. Defoe scoring and leading Sunderland to victories over Boro, Hull, Swansea, Burnley, and Watford will be essential to their survival, although apparently not David Moyes' job security. Bottom of the Premier League. Nice work if you can get it.

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If you didn't see your club in the above categories it's because they are safely mid-table, with no worries over going down, and no hopes for European nights. Relax. Pick up a magazine. All there is to do is wait for next season.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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