We have only four matches left to earn our way back into the Champions League for another season. It's become much easier to see Chelsea's path into that coveted spot. Interestingly, it turns out that, after Tottenham's draw with Wigan, and Chelsea's victory over Swansea, Arsenal are no longer a major factor in the race for the Top Four, from Chelsea's perspective. They're still a factor for third, of course, and can still play a part in the Top Four race, but their results have become pretty irrelevant to us. How is this, you ask? In essence, it's because of our upcoming match with Spurs, the fact that we need only beat one of our London rivals, and our game in hand.
Let's take a look at the table:
First, let's take a look at what each team can do from here, irrespective of fixtures. Chelsea have 65 points and four matches remaining, and thus can reach a maximum of 77, Arsenal have 64 and three matches remaining, for a maximum of 73, and Tottenham have 62 and four matches, and a maximum of 74. Of course, it's impossible for Both Tottenham and Chelsea to reach their maximums, due to their upcoming match at Stamford Bridge, but we'll get to that later.
As you can see, due our game in hand, Chelsea need only match or better Arsenal's three results in their four games to beat Arsenal into third, or possibly fourth, depending on goal difference, with three wins anywhere being enough to ensure a place not only ahead of Arsenal, but with 74 points, third place as well. Even if we don't beat Arsenal to third, though, there's still every chance for Chelsea to finish ahead of Tottenham, as Chelsea's massive goal difference advantage is likely unassailable for Spurs. Before we get into the permutations between Chelsea and Spurs, let's look at the remaining fixtures for each team.
Queens Park Rangers - Away
Wigan - Home
Newcastle - Away
With the possible exception of a Wigan team fighting for their lives, who tend to be pretty dangerous in that situation, that looks like a pretty easy run-in. QPR are already down, and have nothing to play for at this stage. I'd say respect, but it's QPR, they don't have any. Newcastle, may also end up drawn into the relegation fight with Wigan, and, while that would usually make them a difficult prospect, Newcastle look utterly lost at the moment, and may be in a death spiral.
Manchester United - Away
Tottenham Hotspur - Home
Aston Villa - Away
Everton - Home
It's hard, really, to see how this could be much more difficult. Luckily, United were denied their one remaining motivation this season, Chelsea's Premier League points record, by drawing with Arsenal yesterday. They'll still be a difficult team for us, but they've got nothing to play for any more. Spurs, Villa, and Everton, on the other hand, will be a true test for us, being in the Top Four race, deep in the relegation battle, and one of our recent bogey teams, respectively.
Southampton - Home
Chelsea - Away
Stoke - Away
Sunderland - Home
This is the middle road of the three sets of remaining fixtures. Southampton should be reasonably safe, and therefore not a huge threat any more. Chelsea is the obvious difficult game, of course. Stoke away is never an easy trip, but they're more-or-less safe at this point. I can't see them putting up too much of a fight, should Spurs get a foothold in the game. Sunderland, though, are in roughly the same position as Newcastle, though they're on a much better trajectory under Paolo Di Canio. This could be a blessing or a curse for Spurs, as Sunderland could be easily safe or desperate for points by the final day.
After 500 words of delay, it's finally time to get into the implications of the Chelsea-Spurs match. I don't think it's a stretch to say it's the most important match of Chelsea's season. While it's not actually a game that'll stop us reaching the Top Four if we lose, but it can actually leave us safe if we win it. Let's look through the different scenarios:
As I said, this wouldn't be a disaster for Chelsea. We have a three-point lead, and huge goal difference advantage over Spurs, and can afford a loss compared to Spurs over the final four games. Given that we may well lose the game before, this loss could put us well on the back foot in the race for the Top Four, and relying on Spurs or Arsenal to drop points, rather than having our fate in our own hands.
This would be a decent result for Chelsea. If we ignore the previous game's result, or assume it to be the same, it leaves Chelsea on 66 points, with Spurs behind on 63. Because of the goal difference advantage, it means Spurs' maximum is down to just 72, which means we need just two wins from our other three matches -- assuming they don't drop any further points -- to assure we finish ahead of Spurs and in the Top Four.
This is obviously the best possible result. Not only is it three more points for us, but it's three fewer points for Spurs. If we take the last example as a template, this result would leave Spurs on a potential points total of 71, and Chelsea on an actual total of 68. It would actually take 4 points lost or gained to be mathematically-sure, but with goal difference being what it is, just three more points from the other three matches, irrespective of Spurs' results, to ensure a Top Four finish. In fact, if we can engineer wins over United and Spurs, we will be safe, barring an unrealistic goal-difference swing.
What do we know, then? For a start, we need to not lose to Spurs, a draw wouldn't be the worst, but we need to avoid the loss, particularly at home. If you were to ask me, I'd say we need to get four points at minimum for the next two matches, with the win preferably in the Spurs match. If we do that, we'll be pretty well placed for the Top Four, requiring just one win, one Spurs loss, or a draw for both, from two rounds to secure a Champions League place. Seriously, though, Chelsea, just beat Spurs! Is another 5-1 asking too much?