The Premier League may not have much of a title race to speak of this season but the battle to finish in the top four and earn a place in next year’s Champions League has a large field of contenders once again.
Even Everton and Aston Villa harbour hopes of a launching a surprise assault, though hopes are fading.
With around 10 games remaining for most of the contenders, The Independent has broken down the run-ins, checking the average home and away points-per-game and average expected goal difference (xGD) of their remaining opponents.
Who has the easiest run-in and who could run into trouble?
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐
It will take quite a collapse for Manchester United to fail to return to the Champions League next season.
Sunday’s narrow win over fifth-placed West Ham has given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side a comfortable nine-point cushion inside the top four and United have just come through a rough run unscathed.
Solskjaer deserves credit for emerging from games against Chelsea, City and David Moyes’ men not only undefeated but with two wins and a draw. Things only get slightly easier down the stretch, though.
Testing trips to Tottenham, Leeds and Villa await, while Liverpool and Leicester visit Old Trafford. Even relegation-battling Brighton and Fulham have generally played better than their results suggest.
The meetings with Burnley and Wolves could be the only games in which United’s opponents do not have much to play for.
Even so, Solskjaer and his players can be confident of picking up enough points to hold their place in the top four.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐1/2
Leicester’s secret? Winning games. Sometimes it’s really that simple.
Only runaway leaders City have more wins to their name than Leicester’s 17 this season and Pep Guardiola’s side are next up at the King Power after the international break.
A trip to the London Stadium follows but then come four games that Brendan Rodgers will target to secure a Champions League place: West Brom, Crystal Palace and Newcastle at home, with Southampton away in the middle.
Win those and Leicester should be able to negotiate their challenging end to the season without much trouble.
Rodgers will want to avoid a repeat of last season’s near miss and go into games against United, Chelsea and Tottenham with a top-four spot already in the bag.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐ 1/2
Chelsea’s run-in is deceptively difficult once their next two games against West Brom and Palace are out of the way.
They will be heavily-fancied to beat both Brighton and Fulham but other appointments – like the trips to West Ham, City and Villa, and Leicester’s visit to Stamford Bridge – look more problematic on paper.
Then again, this isn’t the inconsistent, uncertain side seen under Frank Lampard earlier this season.
Thomas Tuchel’s possession-heavy style has made Chelsea more defensively resolute and there are tentative signs that the attack is coming along too.
Provided they come through that test at the London Stadium, they should have enough to get over the finish line.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐
Even after defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday, West Ham are most certainly in this race.
It is a huge credit to David Moyes and his staff that they are contenders for a top-four spot – especially because of all this season’s surprise candidates, they have the best chance of actually getting over the line.
West Ham can draw level on points with Chelsea if they beat Arsenal in their game in hand this weekend.
Then in April, they play both Leicester and Chelsea at home in the space of a fortnight. Win those two and suddenly a Champions League place will look possible.
The rest of their schedule is made up by bottom-half and mid-table opponents with little to play for, and Moyes’ men have been fairly reliable against those sorts of sides this season.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐1/2
If an unlikely surge into the top four is going to come from anyone, it is the champions.
Injury-hit Liverpool may be able to spare their blushes judging by their run-in, which is the softest schedule of all the contenders by far.
Their final six games see Newcastle, Southampton and Crystal Palace visit Anfield, while Jurgen Klopp and his players also travel to West Brom and Burnley as well as Old Trafford.
The Liverpool of old would have expected to take at least 16 points from those games.
The problem is that they already have a lot of ground to make up. If Chelsea, Leicester and West Ham slip up and take points from each other, a sustained run of wins would be enough to get back in contention.
Is this current Liverpool side still capable of that?
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐1/2
Despite only being two points behind West Ham, back-to-back defeats have sucked a lot of the air out of Everton’s top-four push.
The underlying numbers have never really liked Carlo Ancelotti’s side and it is easy to see why after losing four of their last five home games.
Everton’s poor record at Goodison Park does not bode well for Crystal Palace’s visit after the international break, with Tottenham, Villa and Wolves set to visit over the coming months too. Even Sheffield United may fancy their chances in May.
It has been a different story on the road – Everton are already top four if you’re looking solely at the away table.
Villa, West Ham, Arsenal and even Brighton are not particularly easy places to go, though, and Ancelotti’s side close out the campaign at the Etihad.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐
Two seasons without Champions League football appears likely for Tottenham, particularly after their defeat and limp display in the north London derby.
After early season title aspirations, this will have to go down as an underwhelming campaign for Jose Mourinho.
Spurs’ run-in is not the most challenging by any means, with the likes of Newcastle, Southampton and Sheffield United to come. A trip to Leeds looks daunting on paper but could provide the space for Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Gareth Bale to thrive.
Even going to Goodison Park is not too intimidating, given Everton’s wretched home record, but given Tottenham’s inconsistency, they have probably left themselves with too much to do.
Winning the Europa League may be their best bet at a return to the top table.
Run-in difficulty: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
After just three wins in 14 league games and still without the injured Jack Grealish, Villa are clinging on in this race.
Dean Smith’s side can only really be included because they have two games in hand. Even if they win both and they would still be a couple points short of fifth-placed West Ham.
Lose to Tottenham at Villa Park this weekend and they can probably be counted out of the top-four race entirely. A Europa League spot would look difficult too.
Their run-in is tough, in any case. Their final 11 games include Liverpool, City, United, Chelsea and another meeting with Tottenham.
Even an impressive Fulham side fighting for their lives are unlikely to be pushovers after the international break.