2022/23 Premier League top-four race: Who will secure Champions League football?

This season’s top-four race is set up to be one of the most exciting in Premier League history. Six different sides fight for two Champions League places; which two will come out on top?

Manchester City and Arsenal are fighting for the Premier League title at the top of the pile. But the race for fourth is heating up too and looks set to go down to the final days of the season.

Arsenal’s bid to win the Premier League title is under threat after a dramatic draw against Southampton tipped the balance in Manchester City’s favour. However, one thing is for sure: both teams have almost locked up Champions League football for the upcoming season after hitting the 70-point hurdle.

Manchester United have long looked set on finishing third. But they could be sucked into the battle to finish in the top four, given the unfortunate injury situation at the back.

Tottenham Hotspur’s self-destruction has opened another spot in the top four due to inconsistent performances and the dismissal of caretaker boss Cristian Stellini’s future, as the ship has sunk even farther after Antonio Conte’s departure as manager. Losses to Bournemouth and Newcastle United have put Spurs very much out of the frame. Yet, who will pounce on the chance come the end of the Premier League season?

Newcastle’s return to winning ways in style makes them further favourites for a top-four finish. But Liverpool will fancy the opportunity to stake their claim after showing green shoots of recovery with key players now coming back from injury. And Aston Villa, as you might have seen, are riding on hot momentum under Unai Emery and just thrashed the Magpies 3-0 at Villa Park.

Brighton & Hove Albion are also in with a shout, having played fewer games than the chasing pack and showing frivolous attacking endeavour since Roberto De Zerbi’s arrival.

One thing is clear: it is still all to play for in the race for Champions League qualification, with the last two months of the season still to play. Below is a closer look at the key fixtures, current form, and our predictions for the four sides currently chasing a top-four finish and Champions League qualification.

Newcastle United (3rd – 59 points) 

Eddie Howe has St. James’ Park bouncing and believing. Newcastle United are strong contenders to finish in the top four and give a solid account of themselves in their forthcoming run-in thanks to his charismatic leadership and ability to coach, mentor, and get world-class performances from them by making them believe in their abilities.

The same was the case at the weekend, where the likes of Jacob Murphy, Joe Willock, and Joelinton stepped up to the occasion and looked like world-beaters as Newcastle ripped Tottenham to shreds.

After a five-game winning streak came to an end with a 3-0 reality check defeat against Aston Villa last week, he and his squad faced criticism. A lot was made of Newcastle United’s character and whether they could bounce back from not only such a disappointing result but a dire performance.

Some called for perspective. But we have got to remember that these raised expectations are set by the Newcastle head coach and his team themselves. And they would be the first to point out their mistakes and improve upon them. Such is the progressive and special culture Howe has created at Newcastle. On Sunday, we saw why.

No such worries at St. James’ Park against top-four rivals Tottenham Hotspur. In previous weeks, the Magpies have been slow out of the blocks; they were nothing short of electric, nerve-wracking, and nervous. Spurs had no response whatsoever, with the game done and dusted inside the opening ten minutes.

Such high intensity and adrenaline driving was the Toon performance that former Spurs full-back Danny Rose said it made him fall in love with football back again after struggling with mental health problems since stepping away from the sport.

The speed, aggression, and attacking intent of Newcastle overwhelmed their opponents. The energy and momentum coursing through this side, propelled forward by the vibrant home support, can be felt in the players’ tenacity and super-positive attitude.

The spirit and togetherness in this team are second to none, and Howe has delivered one of the best managerial performances of the season. It feels like they are sprinting towards the finish line to take the prize they richly deserve.

They are currently well ahead of schedule and in a terrific position to secure a top-four finish and Champions League football. Yes, the job is not done yet. Arsenal and Brighton feature in their run-in. But both have to come to this fortress. They will feel the heat, especially title-chasing Arsenal, who know from last season how ambitions can be crushed by a poor display at St. James’ Park.

Everton on Thursday will be tough. The raucous Goodison Park crowd is never particularly easy to play in front of, as claimed by Howe. But should the likes of Alexander Isak, Joelinton, and Callum Wilson continue their sensational scoring form of late, these next two games could wrap things up pretty quickly.

They need only 13 points from the next seven fixtures to absolutely confirm it. And they also have a superior +29 goal difference to save their beacon if things become tight, and they struggle to find wins.

Remaining Fixtures: Everton (A), Southampton (H), Arsenal (H), Leeds United (A), Leicester City (H), Chelsea (A), and Brighton & Hove Albion (H, to be rescheduled).

Where will they finish? Third.

Manchester United (4th – 59 points) 

Manchester United’s primary goal under new manager Erik ten Hag at the start of the season was to get back into the Champions League and stabilise after the club’s worst-ever Premier League campaign in 2021/22. A nightmare start with two successive defeats made that target look optimistic at best. But the turnaround that followed has been nothing short of a surprise.

Ten Hag has somehow brought results, consistency, confidence, and belief to win things back to Old Trafford in a short space of time, ending a six-year trophy drought by beating Newcastle United in the EFL Cup final. They are on the verge of more silverware as the Reds booked their spot in the FA Cup final on Sunday following a penalty shootout win over Brighton & Hove Albion at Wembley.

On the outset, being the top-four favourites and boasting a consistent goal-getter as Marcus Rashford, with world-class players Casemiro and Eriksen back available, Manchester United simply need to sustain their revival to seal a top-four place. However, this optimism could be really tested in the coming weeks; their lack of depth in key areas means they need to be lucky with injuries and suspensions.

Big capitulations at the hands of Sevilla (Europa League), Newcastle United, Manchester City, and Liverpool show there is still an element of complacency and willingness to down tools when it gets tough. But Ten Hag’s men have always tended to bounce back in style after those results.

The team has looked more mobile and fluid when Anthony Martial leads the line. But the Frenchman has been injury-prone and inconsistent, while there may be problems at the back with preferred centre-back pairing Raphael Varane (ankle) and Lisandro Martinez (fractured metatarsal) sidelined due to respective injuries at the moment, with the latter out for the season.

Ten Hag had to form a makeshift defence in the absence of Varane, Martinez. And Harry Maguire, with Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw forming the pairing at the heart of the backline. Meanwhile, Aaron Wan-Bissaka comes into the equation at right-back, with Diogo Dalot switching across to left.

All of the aforementioned defenders really shone through against Brighton. And that looks set to be the Dutchman’s preferred setup moving forward. Another good news for the Old Trafford faithful could be the early return of Varane from injury layoff, with recent reports claiming he could be available for the FA Cup final in June. And Ten Hag has now admitted that could be a possibility.

They have another eight games left in the Premier League campaign and have a tricky-looking run of fixtures, starting with a vital outing against Tottenham Hotspur on the road this midweek.

After Spurs’ 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Newcastle United, the Red Devils are already six points clear of them in fourth and have a couple of games in hand. Hence, they are in pole position to qualify for next season’s Champions League. And a positive result on Thursday would further strengthen their grip on a top-four spot, and settle any leftover doubts or nerves.

Where will they finish? Fourth.

Remaining Fixtures: Tottenham Hotspur (A), Aston Villa (H), Brighton & Hove Albion (A), West Ham United (A), Wolverhampton Wanderers (H), Bournemouth (A), Fulham (H), Chelsea (H)

Tottenham Hotspur (5th – 53 points) 

Where do we begin, exactly? In a game between fourth and fifth and vital to keeping their Champions League hopes alive, Tottenham’s appalling performance was a terrible reflection of their approach, attitude, and ability at this moment in time. It was dreadful enough to lose to Bournemouth at home. This was even worse.

On Sunday, Tottenham collapsed to a 6-1 defeat to Newcastle. They conceded five goals within the opening 21 minutes, which was the epitome of a wretched campaign that had already featured a fiery, challenging rant from since-departed boss Antonio Conte, in which the Italian called his players “selfish” and criticised the owners and the culture of a club without silverware since 2008.

Never in the history of Premier League football have you come to see such a farcical, pitiful, shambolic, and gutless capitulation as caretaker manager Cristian Stellini’s personnel and tactical decisions, including lining up with a back four rather than the back-three system that the squad have become used to in recent years, backfired disastrously.

Stellini stepped up to take charge of Tottenham after Antonio Conte’s departure in March 2023. Having been Conte’s assistant, it raised a few eyebrows. And the results that have followed have raised even more questions.

After the game, the Italian coach accepted full responsibility. But it proved costly to his future, as he, too, was relieved of his duties the very next day. Managerial baby Ryan Mason will be in the dugout for their next match on Thursday and for the remaining six games. (Of course, the wrong decision when 76-year-old club legend Harry Redknapp is still out there available after Roy Hodgson’s exploits at Palace). Also, sacking the interim manager and appointing the assistant of the previous interim to be the new interim (Gosh, I’m all confused).

With the uncertainty around the club and the toxic atmosphere at the gigantic spaceship of a Tottenham Hotspur stadium, there could be more painful experiences to come in the week ahead, with Manchester United at Spurs on Thursday and a daunting trip to Anfield scheduled for next weekend. By the end of the week, Spurs could well and truly be in free fall.

Rather than looking up at the increasing gap between them and the top four — now six points, with Manchester United and Newcastle both having games in hand — Spurs would be looking over their shoulders, worried about getting dumped out of European spots by the chasing pack.

Aston Villa, Liverpool, and Brighton & Hove Albion are all within striking distance. All three are in fine form. Liverpool and Brighton currently have games in hand that, if won, would propel them above Tottenham’s current point tally. The prospect of finishing eighth and falling out of the European qualification places altogether cannot be ruled out for a side that showed an unacceptable lack of fight and discipline at St. James’ Park.

Remaining Fixtures: Manchester United (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H), Aston Villa (A), Brentford (H), Leeds United (A)

Where will they finish? Eighth. 

Aston Villa (6th – 51 points) 

Like Brighton & Hove Albion, the beauty of Aston Villa’s challenge is that it is so unexpected. They are under absolutely no pressure given that they were battling against relegation only this season under Steven Gerrard.

This has always been a talented squad. But the lack of coaching and clarity resulted in massive underperformance towards the back-end of last season and the start of the current one. (Although we won’t name names here, but that’s what happens when you appoint a manager based more on popularity than actual managerial and coaching skills).

After years of spending big sums of money and having different managers in charge, Villa finally seem to have got it right with former Arsenal boss Unai Emery, who felt like a big coup for Villa, the kind of leader who could really make things happen. And he quickly proved his worth by almost immediately untangling some of Steven Gerrard’s most unpopular decisions.

Emery has inspired an incredible transformation, and Villa have every reason to believe after smashing high-flying Newcastle 3-0 in their last home game. Solid defensively, their resilience has helped them over the line in several games, and they have thrived thanks to their lack of ego.

Emery has instilled a tremendous work ethic and ensured his team pack a punch up front, with Ollie Watkins in inspirational form up top, with the Englishman banging in 11 goals from his last 13 Premier League games.

Under Gerrard, Villa’s major issues were a lack of creativity and forwards who fell out of favour. Emery turned both around in a matter of days. For creativity, Emery turned to the bench and tapped midfielders Douglas Luiz and Emiliano Buendia.

The talented but mercurial players were not used properly by Gerrard. Emery’s trust in Luiz blew up the midfield for the Villans and allowed them to finally get some supply into the box for their forwards. The Spaniard coached the best out of Watkins and worked on everything from where to run, how to press, and how to position his body to maximise his goal-scoring chances.

It has worked wonders; between Luiz’s service, Buendia’s space exploitation between the lines, Jacob Ramsey’s late runs, and Watkins’s newfound confidence, Villa have scored in all of the 19 games they have played under Emery, thus breaking the record for the longest successive scoring run any team has had from the start of a manager’s tenure in Premier League history.

Not just a simple good run of form, the team have been transformed, playing without fear at the moment. However, coming from a relatively low position, they have left themselves with a lot of ground to make up on the top four, and they did drop points against Brentford.

The Lions also have a tricky run of fixtures, and we can see them dropping points on more than one occasion down the line. Still, a sixth-place finish from flirting with the relegation zone is some remarkable transformation, and Emery & co. deserve plaudits for that.

Remaining Fixtures: Fulham (H), Manchester United (A), Wolverhampton Wanderers (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), Liverpool (A), Brighton & Hove Albion (H)

Where will they finish? Sixth.

Liverpool (7th – 50 points) 

We saw Liverpool make it back-to-back wins in the Premier League over the weekend with all three points against Nottingham Forest. It was probably not as comfortable as many would have predicted given Forest’s situation at the foot of the table. But the Reds got the job done to make it six points from the last six available. Are Liverpool back within a shout for the top four?

The Reds have superior attacking talent in the likes of Darwin Nunez, Cody Gakpo, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Luis Diaz (back from injury), all of whom are coming into form. But after being burned on many occasions before, we are no longer backing them to go on a run thanks to their inconsistency.

To go from quadruple hunters to top-four scramblers is quite a nosedive in itself. But Liverpools inconsistent form in the Premier League this season has been highlighted in the past six weeks.

They destroyed Manchester United 7-0 at Anfield at the start of March. But less than a week later, they lost 1-0 at relegation-threatened Bournemouth. The Reds then suffered a 4-1 loss at the Etihad against reigning champion Manchester City before playing out a scoreless stalemate against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that stopped the rot somewhat.

The Easter Sunday clash against Arsenal at Anfield ended 2-2 after Jurgen Klopp’s side came back from going 2-0 down inside half an hour, earning a late draw thanks to a Roberto Firmino header. Then last Monday, Liverpool were triumphant at Elland Road — and how, as they battered Leeds United 6-1 before looking shaky at the back in the narrow 3-2 victory over Forest.

That run of results has left the Reds seventh in the table on 50 points, only three points off the Europa League places, having played a game less than Tottenham Hotspur, who are fifth. Given both top-four rivals Aston Villa and Spurs are yet to visit Anfield this season, one may give a back-firing Liverpool side a fair chance to get their mojo back and climb up the ladder between now and the end of the season.

Their seven remaining games are fairly kind. As well as playing Tottenham and Villa, they play host to Nottingham Forest, Fulham, Brentford, and Aston Villa at Anfield, alongside visits to West Ham United, Leicester City, and Southampton. Positive signs in the last couple of games give Liverpool an outside chance of making the top four.

Jurgen Klopp has employed a new tactic in the last two games, with usual right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold taking up more of a trendy inverted full-back role, giving him the opportunity to roam the midfield going forward and spread the play like a prime Pirlo. With Thiago Alcantara also back to full fitness, they look set to continue their pursuit of next season’s Champions League ticket.

However, with so few matches left to play, the Champions League looks out of reach for them. And it feels as if they have left this run of form too late given they now will have to win almost all of their matches and hope not one but two better-positioned teams collapse, while the Seagulls, who are only one point behind them, have two games in hand on the Reds. They look to be starting their propulsion engines, but they are coming from far back out.

Those away trips could also be challenging, given that the Hammers, Foxes, and Saints are all involved in a desperate fight to beat the drop. Combining this with their terrible form on the road, Liverpool are going to need to produce more consistent performances if they are to make the Europa League.

Remaining Fixtures: West Ham United (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), Brentford (H), Leicester City (A), Aston Villa (H), Southampton (A).

Where will they finish? Seventh.

Brighton & Hove Albion (8th – 49 points) 

When matches-in-hand are taken into account, Brighton had been in the top five pace. But despite recent changes, the Seagulls may still contend for a spot in the Champions League deep into the final stretch.

They were on the wrong end of a 7-6 penalty shootout in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United after a goalless 120 minutes of football at Wembley. While the narrow defeat left a bitter taste given they were the better team on the whole but just lacked that incisiveness in the final third, this is no time to mull over. And they will need to pick themselves up quickly though as they look to secure European football for next season.

Roberto De Zerbi has transformed Brighton, which is ruffling a few feathers in the Premier League establishment. The Italian tactician was appointed in September, replacing Graham Potter, who had departed the club to join Chelsea.

The Italian has a classy aura, one you can relate to with top managers like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Antonio Conte, among others. He plays off emotions on the touchline and does not backtrack when it comes to talking about his side’s targets, openly admitting he has challenged his team to finish in the European spots.

Make no mistakes; they have a challenging run-in. And recovering from the semi-final defeat won’t be easy. But when he talks, you can see that determination. This belief, hunger, aggressive, and direct style of football against the backdrop of a no-pressure environment to achieve, makes them a total wildcard in this race.

They are creating better chances than when Potter was in charge and now have real cutting edge to their attacks as they look to create one-on-ones for their dangerous attacking players like Solly March and Kaoru Mitoma, who are so adept at churning chances from wide areas.

The manager encourages his players to show bravery, skill, and play with purpose. Their possession play is second to only a certain Manchester City in the Premier League.

De Zerbi has Brighton playing like an elite footballing team, i.e., your Man Citys and Barcelonas. And he is doing it with a team that has seen most of its best assets stolen from them, like three key players, Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma, and Leandro Trossard, all sold for a net profit of £90 million. It is a remarkable success story and illustrates just how efficient and revolutionary the South Coast club are with their recruitment strategies.

However, the sense of this wonderful, feel-good story is too good to be true. This is Brighton: they are not supposed to be challenging for the top four at this stage of the season. That gets to the heart of the issue. The fear is that the Seagulls, competing with teams with much greater resources, will run out of steam.

When the heat is on, Brighton’s lack of depth and genuine top-four quality could hamper their chances. They have exceeded all expectations so far. But their rivals have better squads and players who are experienced in dealing with the pressure of the run-in.

They have a growing list of injury concerns, which hampered their chances of reaching the FA Cup final. The Albion have been without midfielder Adam Lallana for three months due to a hamstring issue, and winger Jeremy Sarmiento has been sidelined with a metatarsal problem.

Tariq Lamptey (knee) and Jakub Moder (ACL) are also out injured, while young striker Evan Ferguson was also a big miss in the FA Cup semi-final given that Deniz Undav has not pulled up any trees since his arrival last summer. Julio Enciso looks to be yet another hidden gem. But you cannot keep pulling a rabbit out of the hat every time to plug the squad depth holes.

Remaining Fixtures: Manchester City (H), Nottingham Forest (A), Wolverhampton Wanderers (H), Everton (H), Arsenal (A), Southampton (H), Aston Villa (A), Newcastle United (A)

Where will they finish? Fifth.

Key fixtures that will decide the Premier League top-four

The points required to qualify for the Champions League vary each year, depending on how competitive the Premier League season has been. For example, 67 points were sufficient in the last season, while in other seasons the required tally has been closer to 73 points.

History across the last 20 years suggests that 72 points have become the benchmark for those in the upper echelons of the Premier League table. It will be interesting to see what the bar will be for this season. But given that Newcastle United and Manchester United are already nearing the 60-point mark with seven games to go, it looks set to be high.

Thursday, April 27: Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester United

Sunday, April 30: Liverpool vs Tottenham Hotspur

Saturday, May 6: Newcastle United vs Arsenal (Date TBC)

Saturday, May 13: Arsenal vs Brighton & Hove Albion (Date TBC)

Sunday, May 28: Leeds vs Tottenham Hotspur

Sunday, May 28: Chelsea vs Newcastle United

Sunday, May 28: Southampton vs Liverpool

Sunday, May 28: Aston Villa vs Brighton & Hove Albion

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