Football: Premier League wobbles leave top four chase wide open

LONDON – Chelsea remain in pole position to claim fourth spot in the Premier League and a return to the riches and prestige of the Champions League next season.

However, a slump in form from Frank Lampard’s men has left the door open for Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal to secure a much-needed return to Europe’s top competition, while Wolves and Sheffield United are also aiming to reach the promised land for the first time.

AFP Sport looks at all six sides’ ambitions heading into the final 15 league games of the season.

Chelsea – 39 points

The Blues still have a five-point cushion, but should already be out of sight for the chasing pack.

Chelsea have won just four of their last 11 league games, a poor run that includes defeats to Bournemouth, West Ham, Southampton, Newcastle and Everton.

Arsenal at home on Tuesday (Jan 21) is followed by Leicester, Tottenham and Manchester United, giving them the chance to finally pull clear, but it could also hand those behind them another lifeline.

Man Utd – 34 points

United’s challenge for the top four will depend largely on what business they do before the end of the January transfer window.

Top scorer Marcus Rashford will be out for at least six weeks due to a stress fracture in his back, while long-term injuries to Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay have already left the Red Devils light in midfield.

United have what looks like the most appealing fixture run-in for the final seven games after the March international break.

However, they have to ensure they are still in the running by then with Wolves, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Sheffield United all to come before Rashford returns.

Wolves – 34 points

Wolves’ stunning fightback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at in-form Southampton on Saturday reignited their Champions League challenge, which had stalled in recent weeks.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s men face Liverpool in their 40th game of the season on Thursday and a short squad could well run out of steam, particularly as they return to Europa League action next month.

But as they proved in beating Manchester City twice and running Liverpool close with a much-changed side last month, Wolves are a match for anyone on their day and go to Stamford Bridge on the final weekend of the season in what could be a winner-takes-all clash for fourth.

Sheffield United – 33 points

Most Blades fans would have settled for survival in their first top flight season for 13 years, but United manager Chris Wilder demands much more of his players.

Wilder has led the club up from League One to seventh in the Premier League and was scathing of his side’s performance for most of Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Arsenal.

Another daunting task awaits when City visit Bramall Lane on Tuesday, but even Pep Guardiola is a big fan of Wilder’s ways.

“If you can improve watching other games and other teams and other managers, then this is the one,” said the City boss.

After City, a run of games against Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Brighton, Aston Villa, Norwich and Newcastle could propel Wilder’s men further up the table.

Tottenham – 31 points

Spurs are almost back to where they started under Jose Mourinho as early optimism and an upturn in results has fallen away in recent weeks.

The loss of Harry Kane for potentially the rest of the season is being felt in a lack of goals, with Mourinho’s men taking just two points from their last four matches.

A return of 31 points from 23 games is 20 less than at the same stage last season.

Spurs have grown used to Champions League football over the past four seasons, but there has been little evidence from Mourinho’s first two months in charge that they will put together the sustained run needed to overhaul his old club Chelsea.

Arsenal – 29 points

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta admitted Tuesday’s trip to Stamford Bridge is a must-win to maintain any hope of a top-four finish.

The Gunners’ performances have improved since the Spaniard took charge last month, but they have won just one of five league games under Arteta.

1-1 draws with Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United have been symbolic of what has held Arsenal back this season.

Other than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a lack of clinical finishing at one end has been compounded by consistent errors from an unsettled defence.

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