With just 13 Premier League games left to be played for Chelsea, there appear to be 7 teams with their sights set on the 4 Champions League places. Manchester United sit 10 points clear of the fourth spot, and with the goal differential they possess it seems unlikely that they will miss out. Clubs will still be harboring thoughts of taking the title from them however, so we'll look at their schedule as well. Sunderland and Liverpool sit 7 and 6 points out respectively, and both have played 1 more game than the teams on 44 points. At this point for either of them to reach fourth, it would take a major collapse by more than 1 of the top 5 teams. For the purposes of this discussion I'm going to ignore them, as it would take awful runs of form from more than 1 team to give either a realistic chance of getting in. We may revisit this discussion in a month or so, and at that point we'll see if they have forced their way into the picture.
Realistically speaking, that leaves 4 teams fighting for 3 places in Europe's premier competition, all probably harboring hopes of a title run as well. Three of those teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham) are still alive in the competition this season. Winning the competition would ensure that team has a return to the Champions League next season, leaving one less spot up for grabs. If the winning team finished out of the top 4 of the Premier League, the top 3 in the league would receive the qualifying spots plus the CL winner. After the jump we'll break down the remaining schedules of the 4 teams in the heart of the chase and try to get a look at who is in the best position to earn those spots going forward, as well as peeking at the remaining schedule for United.
First we'll look at our own club, Chelsea. Assuming they can sort their new tactics, Chelsea likely boast the most talent in their starting lineup of the 4 teams. They also received the most favorable draw in the Champions League round of 16 in FC Copenhagen. If Didier Drogba regains his form, Chelsea have a realistic chance at winning the Champions League. They also have a plus 24 goal differential, which puts them ahead of Manchester City (plus 20) and Tottenham (plus 8), and just behind Arsenal (plus 27). Chelsea have a game in hand at the moment over City, and currently sit in the fourth spot.
While Chelsea's remaining schedule is not easy, they aren't as bad off as some in the 2-5 spots. Chelsea only have 4 games remaining against top 6 opponents. They play home and away against Manchester United (3/1 and 5/7 respectively), and there if United continue to play at the level they are the game on 5/7 may have little meaning to them. We also host City on 3/20 and host Tottenham on 4/30. Three of those games are at home, so we should hopefully do ok for ourselves.
Arsenal seem to be the safest bet of the 4 to get in to the Champions League. They unfortunately drew the worst possible opponent in the Champions League in FC Barcelona, so they will have a tougher road to advance than Tottenham or Chelsea. Domestically, though, they have the easiest remaining schedule of the 4 teams. As far as top 6 competition goes, Arsenal have Liverpool and United at home still to play (4/16 and 4/30 respectively), as well as a trip to White Hart Lane on a make up date yet to be determined. With a 6 point cushion and the best goal differential of the 4, Arsenal seem a long shot to miss out on the Champions League. Injuries could play a part, however, as Arsenal's defense has been looking increasingly banged up and they always seem to suffer more injuries than most teams. While they appear to have great squad depth, they really don't have the number of impact players Chelsea or City do if a guy like Nasri, Fabregas, or Van Persie suffer a major injury.
Manchester City have a less certain path to their first Champions League. They are the only 1 of the 4 teams not currently in the competition, and they have played 1 game more than the rest of the 4 teams we're discussing here. They have a 5 point lead on both Chelsea and Tottenham, but can't afford to drop points due to the game in hand. City are away to United tomorrow, in a game that will have major implications on both the title race and Champions League places. Whatever the end result of that game, it will have both positive and negative implications for Chelsea. They also play Chelsea at the Bridge (3/20), Liverpool away (4/10), and Spurs at home (4/16). City need to be concerned will goal differential, as they are the least prolific scoring team currently among the top 4.
Tottenham at this point seem the least likely to earn a spot, as they have already likely lost the tiebreaker to all 3 other teams in this discussion. At only plus 8 in the goal differential, they appear to be overachieving to be at 44 points currently. None of their strikers are really in form, and their depth will be tested when the Champions League starts back up for them. Their defense has also been very suspect, so it will be interesting to see how they perform down the stretch. It may be in their best interest to get bumped from the Champions League soon, and facing AC Milan in the round of 16 may mean only 2 more games for them. Spurs have to play well for the next 2 moths, as their schedule to finish the season will be absolutely brutal. In the last month of play they have away dates at City (4/16), Chelsea (4/30), and Liverpool (5/15), as well as a yet TBD home date against rivals Arsenal. If either Spurs or Arsenal manage to stay alive in the CL and Arsenal keeps winning in the FA Cup, this date could well not happen until mid-April as well. The next weeks will be crucial to Tottenham, as they really need to position themselves well going into the final month of the season.
For those still thinking about the Premier League title, there is still an outside chance of catching United. They have a schedule which is far more difficult than any other club at this point. They have City at home tomorrow, home and away dates with Chelsea, and trips to Anfield and the Emirates. They are also still alive in the FA Cup (they've drawn non-league side Crawley) and CL (Marseille). In all likelihood they will advance in both competitions, meaning their squad depth will be heavily tested in the last 3 months of the season. For us to harbor any hopes of catching them, we really need to win both games against them. If we do that, however, the brutal schedule United still has to play should cause them to drop at least 4 more points. I'd say it's unlikely at best that we manage to catch them as well as the other three clubs in front of us, but if we have a nice 5 or 6 game run here we may need to revisit the situation.
It's going to be a very interesting final 3 months to the season, and for our squad the next month will be crucial. We really need to see Carlo nail his tactics from this point onward, as the blip against Liverpool appears to have cost us dearly on multiple fronts. We can't continue to lose games, especially games at home, if we want to remain in Europe's premier competition next year. How we finish the season may have a huge impact on the summer window, as several players are likely to be on the way out anyway. Tomorrows Manchester derby will be the first huge one for us to watch, as what transpires will likely help sort out the picture of what is reasonably attainable for us this season. Regardless of the outcome of that game, we need to beat Fulham on Monday and hopefully do so while looking better than we did last week. I'd love to hear your thoughts on where our focus should lie in the comment section below.