The Run-in: 4 Premier League games with 4 to go
The Premier League title was decided months ago if we're honest. With a month remaining in the campaign, the four Champions League places are all but certain as well. So much for the notion of uber-competitive English football and the so-called top six. It’s still lonely at the top.
The bottom is a bit crowded, however. Results last week finally created a gap between the lowest three and the rest. Are the lifeboats finally pulling away from the Titanic or is there still hope for Southampton, Stoke and West Brom?
Four matches today will go a distance towards answering that question. They feature the four most endangered clubs, as well as the one that still harbours hope for a Champions League place. These are the matches you should watch today. Here is a primer on how each can affect the relegation battle.
Liverpool v Stoke 12.30 pm local
At stake for Liverpool: The chance to draw level with Manchester United for second before the Red Devils play Arsenal tomorrow.
At stake for Stoke: An opportunity to close within one point of safety pending Swansea’s result v Chelsea.
Mitigating factors: Liverpool go to Rome on Wednesday with a berth in the Champions League final on the line. The Reds hold a 5-2 advantage over Roma but Jurgen Klopp is more likely to rest players now. Everyone remembers how the Giallorossi stunned Barcelona at Stadio Olimpico just over a fortnight ago. A chance to win the Champions League supercedes the opportunity to finish second in the Premier League every day of the week. Besides, even if the Merseysiders draw level with United, Jose Mourinho’s side holds a game in hand. Meanwhile, the possibility of facing Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke rather than Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino plays into Stoke’s hands in a game they must win, having already played 35.
Prognosis: Even against Liverpool’s bench, the Potters will be lucky to come away with any result, much less a win. Further, if Swansea wins, Huddersfield draws, and Stoke loses, Paul Lambert’s mission becomes impossible. The Bet365 will host Championship matches next season.
Newcastle v West Brom 3:00 pm local
At stake for Newcastle: Not a lot. Toon are nearly safe on 41 points. So’ton can draw level with them if Rafa Benitez’s side can’t secure a point from their last four. The Saints making up the 12-goal difference is possible, I suppose. I'm told everything is.
At stake for West Brom: Everything. Victory over Manchester United has given the Baggies hope they don’t deserve. Or maybe they do if you’re of a sadistic bent.
Mitigating factors: Neither club has any distractions. Newcastle is playing out the string, with players and coach motivated to show what they have to either keep their jobs or impress potential new employers. West Brom is still locked in the cellar. If they burgle three points from St James Park in another smash-and-grab and the three clubs immediately above all lose, they are still bottom and five points from safety with two matches remaining. If Swansea, who hold a game in hand, manage two points before season's end, the Baggies are going down. Their situation isn’t desperate; it’s hopeless.
Prognosis: The Magpies may be too comfortable in their safety to start strongly. West Brom might even take an early lead, but Rafa and his players will have the pride to fight back. Expect a draw at best for Albion and a ticket to the Championship.
Southampton v Bournemouth 3:00 pm local
At stake for Southampton: An opportunity to close the gap on Swansea to one, pending the Welsh side’s result against the Blues.
At stake for Bournemouth: Guaranteed safety and local pride.
Mitigating factors: It’s a South Coast Derby so both sides will be up for the match. For the fans that could mean a goalfest considering the talent each side possesses. Added incentive for the Cherries does the Saints no favours, though. They will have to work for this one.
Prognosis: Bournemouth has had the better season but Southampton are desperate and at home. A 3-2 win sounds about right.
Swansea v Chelsea 5:30 pm local
At stake for Swansea: Carlos Carvalhal has the opportunity to all but put an end to the relegation battle, secure the Swans’ Premier League status for another season and his job until December if recent seasons at the Liberty Stadium are any indication.
At stake for Chelsea: Gossamer hopes for a Champions League place.
Mitigating factors: Assuming Swansea win while both Stoke and Southampton are defeated, they will be seven points clear with three matches remaining. Another win would guarantee their safety. They might even leapfrog Huddersfield in the process, improving their chances further. Chelsea did experience a hiccup while turning the calendar from January to February, with embarrassing back-to-back losses to Bournemouth and Watford. Their more recent defeat to Tottenham seems to have served as a wake-up call, though. Antonio Conte’s side were sluggish against West Ham but then defeated So’ton twice, and fought back to beat Burnley. They are five points behind Spurs for the final Champions League place. It’s a steep mountain to climb but the view is breathtaking if you can make it. Don’t count the Blues out just yet.
Prognosis: Swansea strike early but that only angers Chelsea, who go on to a comfortable 4-1 victory.