Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
The race for the Premier League title is reaching its pinnacle between Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham, but one eye should also be on the emerging battle of the ‘rest of the best’ facing their struggles to cling onto a top four finish in order to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Chelsea, currently occupying fourth, Manchester United and Arsenal are all in contention to claim the final spot through the domestic league for Europe’s top-tier competition. There is plenty to play for and drama awaits.
Here is my analysis on the top four battle:
Maurizio Sarri has come under criticism in recent months with his ever-changing performances shown by his players. While his philosophy of possession-based football will always take time to adapt to a Premier League side – just as Pep Guardiola’s did at Manchester City – fans are growing impatient at certain player selection choices.
The emphatic 4-0 loss away to Bournemouth last month was Sarri reaching his lowest point as Blues manager. Having been praised for his attacking brand of football before joining the West London club, fans were especially critical of his man-management and questioned whether his players are truly welcoming his ideas on board.
Saying that, however, Chelsea bounced back with a 5-0 victory at home to the lowest-ranked team in the division. While not much analysis can be taken away given the level of opposition, Sarri will feel more confident heading into a period of tough fixtures.
The Blues still have to play four of the top six, with three of four of those matches coming away from home. As shown this season, Chelsea’s performances have deteriorated when playing away from Stamford Bridge.
With Gonzalo Higuaín now leading the line, Sarri will be at ease having a striker whom he has worked with before at Napoli and managed to get the Argentina international operating at a world-class level.
Chelsea’s flip-flop results do not, however, stand them in great stead when Manchester United are now breathing down their neck in fine form. If they are to make the top four, they need to add a level of consistency in their performances.
Chelsea to finish in the top four 8/13
Two points off fourth place Chelsea and with the wind in their sails, Manchester United’s players are enjoying their time under Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
It was a tumultuous season under José Mourinho up until before Christmas, but the Norwegian manager has balanced things out and looks to be settled on his first choice starting line-up – something the Portuguese struggled with.
Like Chelsea, United have four of the top six yet to play, but only one of those – the game against Arsenal in which they have great memories at the Emirates from the FA Cup – come away from Old Trafford.
The Red Devils now have some familiarity in their play and are beginning to impose a sense of ruthlessness into their game. The 1-0 victory, which some could say was undeserved, came at a crucial time to keep the pressure on Chelsea, who play the Citizens at the Etihad at the weekend.
The vibrancy of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba is showing fans what can be achieved with an attacking-minded coach. They are showing their determination on the pitch and willingness to bombard forward.
Man United’s top four fate is likely to be more or less decided in the game against Chelsea at Old Trafford. If Solskjær can hold his nerve and get his players to deliver an awe-inspiring performance, they might well just come out of this season with something to celebrate.
Manchester United to finish in the top four 11/8
Unai Emery has made some strides since taking over from Arsene Wenger last summer, but it feels as if the Spaniard is taking one step forward and two steps back since the turn of the year.
The inconsistencies of losing to West Ham and then beating Chelsea suggests that Emery needs more time at the helm of the Gunners in order to iron out of his game plan. The restriction of money in the two transfer windows since taking over has been difficult for Emery to sign the players he has identified, especially with Mesut Özil’s superstar wage hindering the budget.
On their day, Arsenal can go toe-to-toe with most teams in the Premier League, but their leaky defence and lack of midfield steel has caught them out this season. Lucas Torreira has been a neat addition, but it still feels that the Gunners are missing a true enforcer screening their defence.
Injuries have not helped, but the lackadaisical approach to defending from some of Arsenal’s players has been comical. The Gunners are an outside choice of making the top four because, at times, they are their own worst enemy.
Emery should be judged on next season when he has had time to implement his own strategy and work with his existing players. It is unfair to hold Emery to the same standards of Sarri purely because of the mammoth difference in budget awarded to the Spaniard.
Arsenal to finish in the top four 7/2
4. Manchester United