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Wednesday 22 January 2020

Race for top four the real battle this season

As Liverpool stroll to the title interest switches to the battle for the Champions League spots

Tammy Abraham has been in good goalscoring form but can the youngster keep it up for the rest of the season
Tammy Abraham has been in good goalscoring form but can the youngster keep it up for the rest of the season

The Premier League deck has been shuffled and a new set of managerial permutations and combinations is already changing the complexion of how the season is likely to play out.

With the transfer window now open, individual clubs may be tempted to spend in order to boost their chances or salvage their season.

At Anfield it's a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Liverpool were the only club to come through the hectic December league schedule unscathed.

The Reds remain the league's clear front runners and pundits are already saying it will take a freak natural disaster - such as an earthquake, a tsunami or an erupting volcano, or probably a combination of all three - to deny them their first league title in 30 years.

Second-place Leicester City had ambitions to mount a credible challenge to Jurgen Klopp's squad but the wheels came off that particular wagon with a couple of damaging defeats in December.

A 3-1 loss to Man City was followed five days later by a 4-0 drubbing by Liverpool which punished Brendan Rodgers side for being upstarts. Pretenders not contenders.

Comfortable

Leicester also dropped points to bottom-side Norwich City. But they're still in second place, just one point ahead of Manchester City.

On the other hand, Chelsea, who'd been looking comfortable in fourth place a month ago with young guns like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic in great form, dropped nine points from losses to Everton, Bournemouth and Southampton.

Frank Lampard's side is just five points ahead of the chasing pack.

Given their recent inconsistent form, Chelsea are in danger of being overtaken in the race for an automatic Champions League place.

With Liverpool so far out in front, that's where the dogfight is likely to be in the coming months. The race for fourth is where the action is.

A month ago, at the start of December, Chelsea were six points ahead of Wolves who were a single point ahead of Manchester United and Crystal Palace, both on 21 points.

But, as ever, the league's in a state of flux.

Spurs were fighting back with a promising run of wins under new manager Jose Mourinho. But December can be cruel and even Mourinho couldn't deliver consistency.

Nevertheless, on 30 points, Spurs are back in the mix and just six points behind Chelsea.

To quote Betty Everett's original Mod classic, it's getting mighty crowded in the race for fourth.

Hot on Chelsea's heels are Manchester United, Spurs, Wolves and Sheffield United. With Crystal Palace and a rejuvenated Arsenal also daring to dream of a shot at top flight European football next season.

It would be a brave pundit who'd attempt to predict how this particular race will pan out.

None of the sides in contention to clinch fourth place have shown consistency. All have problems. And with lower clubs battling for survival, some of them such as Everton, West Ham and Watford energised by new head coaches, there can be few certainties.

The chasing clubs are as likely to drop points to lower sides as they are against leading clubs.

Fourth place is still Chelsea's to lose.

Weakness

Although it's his first season managing a Premier League side, Frank Lampard knows what's required. He knows where his squad's weaknesses are and, following a series of lacklustre performances, will work to recover the confident swagger of early season.

Chelsea's claim will be helped by the fact neither Manchester United or Spurs have shown the consistency necessary to mount a credible challenge with both losing on New Year's Day to Arsenal and Southampton respectively after Chelsea had only drawn with Brighton.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's young side is hampered by a lack of creativity and experienced guile in midfield. With Scott McTominay injured and Paul Pogba also out of commission, United could struggle to maintain the progress they've hinted at.

Expect Mourinho to be active during the transfer window as he tries to guarantee Champions League football next season.

Despite no big money players in his squad, Nuno Espirito Santo has been doing a solid job at Molineux.

However defeats either side of New Year shows a vulnerability that doesn't augur well for a team with Champions League aspirations.

Unlikely heroes, Sheffield United are the outsiders. While manager Chris Wilder has his newly-promoted side well organised, being a difficult team to beat is unlikely to be enough over the course of a season.

Thrills and spills are guaranteed during the second half of the season.

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