Lingard is the spark for West Ham, Everton need Rodriguez’s creativity and Tottenham’s hopes rely on Kane AND Mourinho… these 10 big names seem DESTINED to decide the top four race
- Race for the top four in the Premier League is shaping up for a thrilling finale
- Leicester City look odds-on to join the two Manchester clubs in top four finish
- This would leave five or more other teams scrambling for one remaining spot
- West Ham climbed above Chelsea and into fourth with a win on Monday night
- Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton are all in hot Champions League pursuit
This extraordinary Premier League season is now entering the final straight and the battle to finish in the top four looks set to be a thrilling sprint finish.
While Manchester City and Manchester United looks assured of Champions League football next season, six or more teams below them are fighting over just two remaining places.
Leicester City in third seemingly look comfortable with their five-point cushion to fifth but it would be foolish to think they’re home and dry.
Below them, surprise packages West Ham lead usual suspects Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool in the scramble for fourth, while even Everton still hold an outside chance.
With millions of pounds in prize money, not to mention pride and prestige, riding on the run-in, we take a look at some of the key figures who will influence the closing stages of the campaign.
How the race for the top four is shaping up in the Premier League as we enter the last stretch
JESSE LINGARD (West Ham)
The Premier League’s man of the moment was at it again with that sensational solo goal in West Ham’s Monday night win at Wolves.
That was Lingard’s sixth goal to add to four assists in eight appearances during his loan spell with the Hammers, a hot streak in stark contrast to months of frustration at Manchester United.
It’s sizzling form that has also restored Lingard to the England squad after two years on the outside looking in. Helping West Ham qualify for the Champions League for the first time would undoubtedly win him a Euro 2020 place.
But it’s just nice to see such a clearly gifted footballer playing with a smile on his face again.
Jesse Lingard celebrates his stunning individual goal in West Ham’s win at Wolves on Monday
MASON MOUNT (Chelsea)
Another Englishman who simply cannot be ignored ahead of a big tournament summer. In the meantime, Mount will look to underline his growing important to Chelsea by delivering them back into the Champions League.
Of course, Thomas Tuchel’s side may yet win the competition with a favourable quarter-final draw against Porto.
Mount, 22, is proving himself just as undroppable under Tuchel as he was under Frank Lampard, producing one influential, game-altering performance after another.
It was certainly telling that Tuchel turned to Mount at half-time after those two quick-fire West Brom goals on Saturday.
Chelsea went on to suffer their first defeat under the German boss but there’s no question Mount will now play an integral part in their response.
Mason Mount has become increasingly important as a match-winner for Chelsea this season
JAMES RODRIGUEZ (Everton)
What a relief it must have been for Everton fans to see James back from injury – and scoring – in Monday night’s draw with Crystal Palace.
The Colombian star’s absence with a calf injury coincided with league defeats to Chelsea and Burnley plus their FA Cup exit to Manchester City.
In the other league games Rodriguez missed, they squeezed out 1-0 wins and it just goes to show how important he is to them as a creative force.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team may sit eighth and will have to bridge a five-point gap to the top four in their remaining nine games but their chances of doing so are vastly enhanced with him in the team.
Everton will be delighted to have James Rodriguez back from injury as they aim for the top four
ANDREAS CHRISTENSEN (Chelsea)
Although Thiago Silva will only miss one Premier League match following his red card against West Brom, the veteran defender’s rash and late tackle on Okay Yokuslu was worrying for Tuchel.
The 36-year-old Brazilian hasn’t done much wrong this season but that was far from his finest hour and he may be used more sparingly in the important games to come.
But Tuchel can draw comfort from the fact Andreas Christensen is waiting in the wings to cover at the back.
The Dane was excellent when he came in to replace Thiago during his recent injury absence and Chelsea will be keen to recover their resoluteness in defence after that unexpected battering by the Baggies.
Andreas Christensen could return to the heart of Chelsea’s back line for the season finale
MARK NOBLE (West Ham)
We already know that ‘Mr West Ham’ is going to leave his beloved club at the end of next season. How brilliant if that final season sees them playing in the Champions League.
The 33-year-old has started only five Premier League games this season, his advancing years were always going to make regular football unlikely with other midfield options available.
But now that Declan Rice is sidelined for four weeks with a knee injury, Noble will be relied upon to get West Ham home this season.
David Moyes knows he can rely on Noble’s vast experience of over 500 games for the club in a top four race where cool heads will be required.
West Ham’s Mark Noble would love to deliver Champions League football in his last season
JOSE MOURINHO (Tottenham Hotspur)
You could make a case to include various managers on this list of 10 but somehow it feels most appropriate to pick Jose Mourinho.
In many ways it’s been a season of strife, struggle and acrimony at Tottenham. It’s still tempting to say they’re going backwards for various reasons of which Mourinho is a big one.
And yet, with eight matches left and all to play for, Spurs are sixth and a mere three points off qualifying for the Champions League, which was surely Mourinho’s pre-season aim.
They also have the Carabao Cup final to look forward to and the chance to end a lengthy wait for silverware.
You feel their run-in from here will either be magnificent and Spurs will finish comfortably within the top four, earning Mourinho a few begrudging plaudits.
Or things will unravel so spectacularly the club will have to think twice about whether he starts as their manager next season. Their next two games against Man United and Everton will offer us some big clues.
It will be fascinating to see how Tottenham’s end to the season pans out for Jose Mourinho
TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Liverpool)
The main headline from the last England squad selection was Gareth Southgate’s decision to omit Trent Alexander-Arnold amid a surplus of right-backs.
As if playing with a sizeable point to prove to someone, Alexander-Arnold was excellent in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Arsenal at the weekend – although some of that praise will have been eroded by his performance in the Champions League midweek
While it’s undeniable that his goal and assist returns have decreased from the incredibly impressive figures of the past couple of seasons, the 22-year-old hasn’t exactly had a bad time which is why his England non-selection upset many, not least Jurgen Klopp.
But there’s still time to change Southgate’s mind. Helping Liverpool win the Champions League and also leading them into a top four finish from their current position of seventh would definitely help.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was surprisingly omitted from the England squad but can still force his way back for Euro 2020 if he shines for Liverpool
KELECHI IHEANACHO (Leicester City)
A glance at the table and you’d be forgiven for concluding that Leicester’s Champions League spot for next season is already assured.
They do, after all, have a five-point cushion to Chelsea in fifth. But they did fall away dramatically from a similar nailed-on position in the second half of last season and they still have the welcome distraction of the FA Cup.
But you feel another two or three wins could do it and with that in mind it’s handy that Kelechi Iheanacho has emerged from Jamie Vardy’s shadow and become Leicester’s in-form striker.
Seven goals in four matches in league and cup prior to the weekend defeat to Manchester City speaks of a man bang in form and he needs to keep that going.
Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho is in the scoring form of his life as he takes a lead role
HARRY KANE (Tottenham)
An inevitable inclusion but Kane is, after all, the Premier League’s leading scorer after his brace against Newcastle on Sunday saw him overtake Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
While Son Heung-min has helped share the burden of scoring Tottenham’s goals this season, Mourinho will still look to the England captain to fire them into the top four.
For his part, Kane has the chance to win the first silverware of his career in the next few weeks and also play himself into blistering form ahead of Euro 2020.
If he goes into that tournament having delivered Spurs into the Champions League, the whole country’s prospects of success at the Euros will rise significantly.
Harry Kane overtook Mohamed Salah to lead the Premier League Golden Boot race on Sunday
DIOGO JOTA (Liverpool)
Liverpool’s £45m summer signing of Jota from Wolves certainly raised a few eyebrows and remarks along the lines of: ‘But they already have a brilliant front line, when on earth will he play?’
But he’s looking more and more like an inspired purchase with every passing week and two goals at Arsenal on Saturday continued a mini purple patch of scoring in four games for club and country Portugal.
His presence certainly reduces the goalscoring burden on Salah and Co, offering Klopp a fresh option whether from the start or off the bench.
Liverpool have a pretty favourable run-in as they chase a top four finish after what has been a demanding and difficult season, so Jota will be licking his lips in this form.
It remains to be seen how much involvement he has in the Champions League though he really can’t have pressed his case to start much harder.
Jota looks more and more like an inspired purchase for Liverpool with each passing week
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