Categories
Sports

Ranking the Champions League chances of England’s contenders

With the resumption of the Premier League (PL) last June 17, all 20 Premier League teams have played 30 league matches. The race for a top four finish this season is tighter than ever—given inconsistent performances from many of the contenders for the places, on top of the fact that Manchester City’s ban from the UEFA Champions League (UCL) extends the Champions League spots to fifth. In this extraordinary season, The LaSallian assesses the chances of the English teams vying for places in next year’s UCL.


Honorable Mentions

Arsenal

The return to action could not have gone any worse for Arsenal, as they’ve lost both their matches so far. A 3-0 hammering against Manchester City and a last-minute 2-1 collapse against Brighton has left the Gunners sitting in 10th, 11 points behind Chelsea who sit in fourth. To rub salt in the wound, the Gunner’s first choice keeper, Bernd Leno, went down with a nasty knee injury in their match against Brighton.

Being 11 points behind Chelsea and five behind Manchester United, without their top goalkeeper, on top of an already struggling defense, it feels like it is safe to say that the Gunners are not playing Champions League football next season.

Sheffield United

Sheffield United have seemingly been exposed since their return to Premier League football. The Blades returned to face Aston Villa where they were dominated without a proper outlet for attack, although a malfunction in goal line technology did cost them an undeserved win. Their next match was a 3-0 defeat to Newcastle. They did not look any more dangerous going forward, and even worse than the first match, they looked frail at the back, allowing Newcastle to score off silly mistakes in the box.

It seems like the break in action has exposed the fact that there is a lack of individual star power going forward in Chris Wilder’s side. The team currently sits in seventh, seven points behind Chelsea, albeit only two points behind Manchester United in fifth—which is still a potential Champions League place. Despite Sheffield not being miles behind them in terms of points, we learned from their two games back that they lack a cutting edge—something that they will need to push them over the top. 

The schedule only gets tougher from here on out. With eight games remaining in their schedule, six of those matchups are against fellow contenders for the top four. Although the Blades cannot be ruled out yet, it does not feel like the team has the ability to achieve the perfect end to an already amazing season.


7. Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham’s first game back against Manchester United resulted in a 1-1 draw. In classic Jose Mourinho fashion, the Spurs played a low block trying to hit United on the counter. It worked in the first half as the North London side looked sharp despite having less of the ball. Steve Bergwijn capitalized for Tottenham after keeper David De Gea’s mistake let the ball slip through. 

However, Mourinho’s men were dominated in the second half where United drew level and could have easily gone ahead if not for a series of brilliant saves by Hugo Lloris. Returning from long-term injury, Harry Kane looked miles from fitness when he was left alone up top. The result of that potentially decisive United match is that Spurs remain eighth in the table, four points behind the Red Devils and nine behind Chelsea. 

Tottenham does have firepower up front with Kane and Son Heung-min, but if Mourinho continues to play compact defense, he needs to find a consistent playmaker to catapult the offense. There are a few players that could emerge, with Giovani Lo Celso, Son, and Dele Alli looking the most likely, but since the club lost Christian Eriksen they have not been able to replace his creativity.

The biggest question surrounding Tottenham is their play against the league’s so-called lesser teams. When the opposition sits back, Spurs have not had an answer. With eight games remaining, their chances at a UCL spot hinges on opening up opposition who let them have the ball. There is a lot unknown about Mourinho’s Tottenham; with key players back, the club has a shot, but there are other teams above them that look in better shape to clinch the coveted UCL places.

Remaining Key Fixtures: Sheffield (A) July 03, Arsenal (H) July 11, Leicester (H) July 18


6. Wolverhampton Wanderers

As one of the teams that heavily relies on its first 11, the three-month rest greatly benefitted Wolves. In their first game as the PL resumed, the Wolverhamption Wanderers started slow in the first half, but they dominated West Ham United after Adama Traoré was brought on in the second half. It was surprising to see that manager Nuno Espírito Santo decided to bench star striker Traoré, but the substitution showed how important he is to the side.

Nuno’s team might not be flashy, but on both offense and defense the squad is solid. The game against West Ham put this on display with strong play coming from all over the park. Traoré set up Raul Jimenez with an excellent cross for the first goal in the 73rd minute, while Pedro Neto converted the second from another magnificent cross, this time by Matt Doherty. 

Wolves are the dark horse in the race for a UCL spot this season. They sit only five points behind fourth-place Chelsea and are only behind Manchester United on goal difference.  Although the squad looks good, compared to the clubs above them, there is a relative lack of individual talent needed to take their game to the next level. 

The Blues and the Red Devils just look like better sides overall, which is why Nuno’s side cannot be any higher up on this list. Stars win matches when they matter the most, and the club just has not proven that they can sustain this level of performance until the end of the season. 

Remaining Key Fixtures: Arsenal (H) July 4, Sheffield United (A) July 9, Chelsea (A) July 26


5. Manchester United

The Red Devils looked lethargic in the opening stages against Tottenham. Their passing was slow, they did not create clear-cut chances, and they eventually gave away a soft goal in the first half. These struggles have been there throughout the season for Manchester United and are a large part of why they currently sit outside the top four.

The second half is where United really came to life. When Ole Gunnar Solskjær took off the shackles and subbed on both Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood, the game completely changed. The highly-anticipated midfield pairing of Fernandes and Pogba was finally on display, and they did not fail to impress. Within moments of the substitution, the true potential of Manchester United was evident as they bossed the rest of the match, though unlucky to not get the victory thanks to brilliant saves by Hugo Lloris.

The draw leaves them five points behind Chelsea in fourth, meaning that getting into the top four will be a daunting task, but Solskjær is armed for the challenge, with one of the most talented United sides in years. Like many of their rivals, the problem for United this season has been breaking down teams who sit deep. The hopes are that they finally possess the key in their Pogba-Fernandes pairing. 

The Red Devils look positive and confident, as they are unbeaten in their last 12 matches in all competitions, but they will need to prove their quality in all their remaining matches. If the team can keep this strong run going, and either Leicester or Chelsea drop points, they could lock up a top four spot; as it stands, Solskjær’s squad still has much to prove, though it does look promising.

It is worth remembering that if the UCL ban is upheld against Manchester City, United are already in a Champions League spot.

Remaining Key Fixtures: Sheffield (H) June 25, Leicester (A) July 26


4. Leicester City

Before the hiatus, Leicester was on a tough string of form until they welcomed talented midfielder Wilfred Ndidi back to the fray in their last match. The team was in disarray during his absence, as they lost six of seven games. In Ndidi’s first game back, he made his presence felt right away, helping his team beat Aston Villa, 4-0.

The Foxes’ first game in three months turned out to be disappointing. With the clock winding down, Leicester expected a victory that would have put them only four points behind second-place Manchester City, extending their cushion over the teams below, but instead they found themselves pulled back in the top four race. They went ahead in the 90th minute with a fantastic strike by England international Ben Chillwell, but deep into stoppage time, they let Watford equalize through a stunning overhead kick by centerback Craig Dawson. 

Brendan Rodgers’ side has been on a slide since the start of the year, winning only three of their last 10 league matches. They do hold a three-point advantage over Chelsea and a significant eight-point advantage over Manchester United, but if they are not careful, the Foxes could find themselves outside the top four at the end of the season.

Luckily for Leicester, they have a relatively easy schedule up until the very end of the season, where they will play Spurs, Sheffield, and Manchester United for their final three matches. This means that the side has time to recover their form and get back to match fitness.

Leicester have the quality they need to halt the charge, but they need to show it quickly as Chelsea, United, and Wolves are starting to catch them. Rodgers needs to get his side back to winning ways—and he needs to do it now because the teams below are all in hot runs of form.

Remaining Key Fixtures: Arsenal (A) July 9, Sheffield (H) July 16, Spurs (A) July 18, Manchester United (H) July 26


3. Chelsea

With numerous reliables returning for the Blues, manager Frank Lampard is confident in securing a top four spot. A host of young talent and veterans like team captain Cesar Azpilicueta are expected to lead the charge, as they try and fend off several teams vying for a UCL berth as well.

The opening match after a long layoff was not all smooth-sailing for the Blues. They failed to convert on a couple of big chances in the first half, and they paid the price when Aston Villa defender Kourtney Hause escaped the backline and converted for his first Premier League goal, off a cross by Douglas Luiz. With Abraham on the bench once again due to niggling injuries, Chelsea lacked finishing—a concern of the club all season long.

Lampard made some difficult decisions in the 55th minute, as he inserted Ross Barkley and Christian Pulisinic in favor of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic. These substitutions led to more opportunities at the net. Two goals in a span of three minutes by Pulisic and Giroud ended up sealing the match. Aston Villa failed to adjust, and Chelsea racked up their 15th win of the season. 

Chelsea are brimming with talent and have the ability to win any game on their day, but the problem has been consistency. Despite beating Villa, there were still frailties at the back, and at times, a struggle with finishing, but one thing is certain—the Blues will create chances.

A five-point gap between them and United should give Chelsea the edge, although their top four spot is far from secure if they fail to convert their chances and remain sturdy at the back. The Blues are projected to finish above the Red Devils, but only just. With matches against both Liverpool and City still to be played, the fight for fourth will be extremely tight.

Remaining Key Fixtures: Man City (H) June 26, Sheffield Utd (A) July 11, Liverpool (A) July 18, Wolves (H) July 26


2. Manchester City

Manchester City has gotten off to a flying start since the restart, soundly beating Arsenal, 3-0, followed up by a commanding 5-0 victory over Burnley. Pep Guardiola’s men struggled with fitness in the opening part of the Arsenal game, but once they got going, City showed their class, leaving little doubt that they would finish comfortably in second.

The main criticism against City this campaign has been a lackluster defense. Aymeric Laporte, one of the star men at the back, struggled with serious injuries, forcing Guardiola to use midfielder Fernandinho as a makeshift centerback. Given the break in action caused by COVID-19, Laporte returned to full fitness. The French man’s presence was felt immediately, offering stability in defense and a base to start the attack. It is difficult to see City dropping many points from now until the end of the season—being 12 ahead of Chelsea in fourth and 17 ahead of United.

However, City was handed a two-year ban from Champions League football after the club was found to have “seriously breached” UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. As such, their spot in next year’s competition would fall to the English team in fifth place.

Manchester City has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sports to overturn the sanction, and a verdict is expected to come by July.

Remaining Key Fixtures: Chelsea (A) June 26, Liverpool (H) July 3


1. Liverpool

Liverpool have been head and shoulders above their competition over the 30 PL match days so far. The Merseyside squad has already locked up its spot in next year’s UCL, and the league championship seems like it is not far behind. At the conclusion of this extraordinary season, the Liverpool faithful can expect to celebrate their first English League title after over three decades.

Remaining Key Fixtures: Manchester City (A) July 3, Arsenal (A) July 16, Chelsea (H) July 18

By Miguel Carlo Gaspar

By Nico Meer

By Diego Vergel de Dios

Leave a Reply