Race for the Champions League – who looks best placed to finish in the top four?

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With just two games to go until the Premier League breaks for the World Cup, the table is beginning to take shape.

Arsenal have emerged as surprise title challengers to Manchester City and Mikel Arteta’s side continue to look in fine form after Sunday’s 5-0 win rout of Nottingham Forest.

Tottenham sit in third, while Newcastle are the surprise package in fourth, now unbeaten in eight games after their thumping 4-0 victory against Aston Villa.

The Premier League table is beginning to take shape with two games until the World Cup break

Chelsea faced a setback in their quest for the top four after Saturday's 4-1 defeat at Brighton

Chelsea faced a setback in their quest for the top four after Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Brighton

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Manchester United and Chelsea are not too far behind and are building under new managers, although the Blues’ 4-1 defeat at Brighton is Graham Potter’s first setback since taking over at Stamford Bridge.

Liverpool are in crisis following successive defeats to strugglers Nottingham Forest and Leeds, while Fulham, Brighton and Crystal Palace make up the top 10. 

As the competition looks as fierce as ever for Champions League qualification, Sportsmail takes stock and weighs up the pros and cons of each of the top half sides finishing in the top four this season.

Arsenal – 1st

Pros – Arteta’s side have purred at times this season and played some scintillating and free-flowing football as they swept aside Forest on Sunday. 

With just one defeat in their first 12 games, along with impressive wins over Big Six rivals Tottenham and Liverpool, the Gunners look a very solid bet for Champions League qualification.

The atmosphere at the Emirates is as good as it’s been in years and with a devastating attack and a rock solid defence, it would be a surprise to see Arsenal drop out of the top four – a testament to how much they’ve developed under Arteta.

Mikel Arteta's side have emerged as surprise title contenders after a superb start to the season

Mikel Arteta’s side have emerged as surprise title contenders after a superb start to the season

Cons – The only problem potentially holding Arsenal back is the relatively small squad and therefore injuries and absentees are likely to be an Achilles heel. 

As seen in last Thursday’s Europa League defeat to PSV Eindhoven, there is a huge drop off between the first choice XI and the back-up options at Arteta’s disposal.

This is particularly pertinent in midfield with Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey having excelled so far this season. 

However, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Mohamed Elneny, who is currently injured – are the only natural back-up options in those roles and they have flattered to deceive when called upon this year.

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – YES – potential title challenge if they stay injury free.

The Gunners do have a small squad but should be certain to at least finish inside the top four

The Gunners do have a small squad but should be certain to at least finish inside the top four

Manchester City – 2nd

Pros – This is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who have swept pretty much everyone aside domestically over the past five years, winning the Premier League in four of those seasons.

If scoring 99 league goals last season wasn’t enough, they added arguably the world’s most in-form striker in Erling Haaland, who has already netted 17 league goals in just 11 games.

Cons – A team full of world class talents and players, it will take something of a disaster for City to drop out of the top four, with the club having qualified for the Champions League for the last 12 seasons.

It’s hard to find any argument to suggest they don’t, so pending a severe injury crisis, Guardiola’s side are a lock.  

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – YES – clear title favourites. 

Manchester City look unstoppable with Erling Haaland fit and firing - they are title favourites

Manchester City look unstoppable with Erling Haaland fit and firing – they are title favourites

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Tottenham – 3rd 

Pros – Antonio Conte is a winner and while the football isn’t always pretty, the Italian finds a way to get the job done – as demonstrated by Spurs’ superb run of form at the back end of last season that saw them pip Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League.

With a world class strike force in Harry Kane and Son Heung-min they have the potential to hurt any team whenever they go forward.

They also haven’t been playing that well but are third, just five points off top, which should give Spurs fans hope that when they finally click, they’ll have no trouble staying where they are in the table.

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Tottenham are finding a way to win games despite not playing particularly well at the moment

Cons – The atmosphere around the club isn’t the greatest with Conte, renowned for being difficult to deal with, continually voicing his pleas for help in the transfer market.

A power struggle is looming between Conte and Daniel Levy which could all blow up in Tottenham’s faces.

Spurs are also struggling to find the right balance in games and are often too passive, demonstrated by Saturday’s 3-2 win at Bournemouth when they went 2-0 down.

The turnaround was evidence of a spirit in the group but that intensity that was introduced when a disastrous defeat was pending needs to be backed-up in future games. 

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – YES – Conte tends to always get the job done. 

Antonio Conte has received criticism for his style of play while he has also repeatedly called for backing in the transfer market - but he's a winner and is likely to bring top four to Spurs

Antonio Conte has received criticism for his style of play while he has also repeatedly called for backing in the transfer market – but he’s a winner and is likely to bring top four to Spurs

Newcastle – 4th 

Pros – Eddie Howe’s side are absolutely flying at the moment. 

Eight games unbeaten, with the fourth best attack and best defence in the league and things are looking rosy for the Magpies.

With their new-found riches, Howe has added quality in key areas (see Bruno Guimaraes, Nick Pope, Sven Botman, Kieran Trippier), while also improving stalwarts that have been at the club for a long period (see Miguel Almiron, Fabien Schar, Joelinton, Sean Longstaff).

The way they swept aside Aston Villa on Saturday was extremely impressive and the feel-good factor around the football club and the city of Newcastle is clear to see. 

It is something that is an extremely powerful weapon they can harness.

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Newcastle are flying and have gone eight games unbeaten after the 4-0 win against Aston Villa

The World Cup break is also likely to benefit Newcastle, with a limited number of players likely to head off to Qatar, thereby giving Howe a chance to refresh the team and put in some important work ahead of the second half of the season, when many of their rivals will see several players returning from the tournament tired. 

Cons – Similar to Arsenal, a lack of quality depth in their squad might come back to bite them if injuries strike, although no European football will be a benefit.

The squad is also still young in big-game experience and the bench on Saturday only really consisted of Allan Saint-Maximin as a game-changing option. 

Teams are also likely to be more aware to their methods – and how to counter them – as the season goes on.

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – JUST MISS OUT – Howe’s side are impressive and finishing in the top seven will be a huge achievement, but the other sides might have too much in the end.

Eddie Howe has managed to improve several players at the club such as Miguel Almiron

Eddie Howe has managed to improve several players at the club such as Miguel Almiron

Manchester United – 5th 

Pros – Erik ten Hag is building something at Old Trafford. 

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Following their 6-3 thrashing in the Manchester derby by Man City at the start of the month, they are now eight unbeaten and are showing a new-found resilience.

Marcus Rashford is looking back to his best, while Casemiro and Christian Eriksen are developing a strong partnership in midfield, as all of Ten Hag’s new signings continue to make an impact on the team.

Gary Neville is now backing them to finish in the top four.

Cons – The Cristiano Ronaldo issue remains hanging as a cloud over the team’s progress, with the lack of a contributing striker a potential problem as Anthony Martial continues to struggle with injury.

In fact, the lack of goals is an issue, with United’s 17, fewer than Brighton, Fulham, Brentford and even 18th place Leicester.  

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – JUST MISS OUT – Ten Hag’s side look promising but there is still work to be done to turn them back into a top side – they are on the right path though!

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Erik ten Hag is building an impressive side at Old Trafford with United now unbeaten in eight

Chelsea – 6th

Pros – Before Saturday’s disaster at Brighton, Potter’s side were unbeaten in nine games since he took charge, conceding just four goals in those matches. 

The Englishman has so many different options at his disposal with significant depth in his squad – something that will be key after the World Cup when players are tired and picking up niggling injuries. 

Potter is a tactically astute coach and the more time he has on the training pitch the better the Blues will become. 

The 4-1 defeat to Brighton is a setback for Chelsea after a good start under Graham Potter

The 4-1 defeat to Brighton is a setback for Chelsea after a good start under Graham Potter

Cons – As has been the case over the past few years, Chelsea are still lacking a true goalscorer, with Kai Havertz and Raheem Sterling their top scorers in their league with just three each. 

Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Brighton also showed that there is still plenty of work to do and that Potter is yet to find the right balance for his team.

Reece James is a big miss at wing-back and his return after the World Cup break will add quality back to their play. 

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – YES – Potter has made some great progress at the club in a short time and the significant squad depth Chelsea possess is likely to be key in this intense campaign.

However, they have impressive squad depth and are making progress under the Englishman

However, they have impressive squad depth and are making progress under the Englishman

Fulham – 7th

Pros – Marco Silva’s side are enjoying a campaign beyond their wildest dreams after promotion last season.

Aleksandar Mitrovic is in superb form, but the performances of other players such as Andreas Pereira, Joao Palhinha, Harrison Reed and Willian to name a few have been a breath of fresh air and the Cottagers will be delighted with their start to the season.

Cons – Fulham just aren’t at that level of the top four and having not survived in the Premier League since 2012-13 when they finished 12th under Martin Jol, they will just be delighted to retain their top flight status.

They are playing at their full potential, while their back-line is a potential area of improvement as they currently have the third worst defence in the league. 

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – NO – if Fulham survive this year it will be a great achievement and a top 10 finish, which looks like it could be a strong possibility, would represent a superb season.

Fulham are enjoying a fine season as they aim to survive relegation for the first time since 2012

Fulham are enjoying a fine season as they aim to survive relegation for the first time since 2012

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Brighton – 8th 

Pros – Saturday’s win over Chelsea was a reminder of how dangerous this Brighton side can be and the talent they possess within their squad.

They also have a penchant for causing big sides problems and have now beaten Manchester United and Chelsea this season, while they drew away to Liverpool. 

Cons – Like Fulham, they’re not at that next level yet, and they still seem to score goals in clusters with 12 of their 19 goals this season coming in three games and seven in the other nine.

They lack a goalscorer and are still yet to fully settle under new boss Roberto De Zerbi – but the win against the Blues is a brilliant victory to build upon. 

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – NO – although they could well make a push for other European competitions which would be a superb result.

They should build on last season’s record-breaking ninth place finish.

Brighton's weekend win against Chelsea was a reminder of the talented squad they possess

Brighton’s weekend win against Chelsea was a reminder of the talented squad they possess

After a tough start, Roberto De Zerbi earned his first victory since taking over from Potter

After a tough start, Roberto De Zerbi earned his first victory since taking over from Potter

Liverpool – 9th  

Pros – Despite the disastrous start, there is still a long way to go and the positive is that they’re only eight points off the top four with a game in hand – it could be much worse.

Similarly, the squad is still full of many of the quality players who have shone over recent years and talisman Mohamed Salah is still yet to click into full gear.

Jurgen Klopp also has pedigree of turning a side around – like when they secured Champions League qualification in 2020-21. It also can’t get much worse for the Reds.

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Liverpool have suffered a disastrous start to the season and are already way off the pace

Cons – There are serious problems at the club at the moment with a side that was on the brink of completing the quadruple just five months ago now looking so bereft of confidence and quality.

The midfield is a huge issue with the Reds so easy to play against as Leeds consistently cut through them, leaving an under-performing and vulnerable defence exposed. 

So many of Liverpool’s players look a shadow of their former selves.

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – NO – Liverpool are so far off it this season and have too much improving to do.

Jurgen Klopp must call on all of his experience and managerial acumen to turn his side around

Jurgen Klopp must call on all of his experience and managerial acumen to turn his side around

Crystal Palace – 10th 

Pros – Patrick Vieira continues to do a fine job at Selhurst Park as he builds an exciting team around the attacking talents of Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and Michael Olise.

It is a long way from the effective, but often turgid, Roy Hodgson era and there is no reason why they can’t build on last season’s 12th place finish.

The Eagles have never finished higher than 10th in the Premier League. It looks on this season.

Cons – Palace are still too inconsistent, with Vieira’s side yet to pick up back-to-back wins this season and again, they’re just not at that Champions League level.

They too lack an orthodox goalscorer, although Odsonne Edouard’s form is promising. They were also cut open several times by Southampton on Saturday, with Vicente Guaita putting in a superb performance to register a clean sheet.

Sportsmail’s verdict on finishing in the top four – NO – like Fulham and Brighton, they’re not competing at that level yet, although a top half finish would be further promising progress under Vieira.

Crystal Palace are building an exciting team under Patrick Vieira but are a long way off top four

Crystal Palace are building an exciting team under Patrick Vieira but are a long way off top four

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