Jason Pettigrove assesses the candidates in the hunt for the Premier League top four as we head into the business end of the 2021/22 season.
There might still be half of the Premier League season still to play, but the race for the final Champions League spot is already heating up. A cluster of four teams are so tightly packed that even a dropped point here or there is having consequences at present.
One or two more clubs are a little further back, though the way that Brighton and Wolves are playing at the moment could see them form part of the equation in due course.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the four teams that seem most likely to be fighting it out for the riches that the premier European competition has to offer.
Mikel Arteta finally has Arsenal back where they belong, at the upper end of the Premier League table.
Propping up the English top-flight seems an awful long time ago now, as the Spaniard has the team playing with verve and a competitive spirit that was missing last season.
The flair the club were always renowned for has returned, but with it a physicality they’ve often been accused of lacking.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang not expected to play for the Gunners again, it’s obvious that Arteta will need to replace his former captain.
On current form, who better than Fiorentina’s sensational 21-year-old, Dusan Vlahovic.
With 33 goals in Italy during 2021, he equalled a record set by Ronaldo, and Arsenal are known to have already submitted a bid of £45m as well as Lucas Torreira.
Though the player hasn’t taken the bait as yet, and Fiorentina seem content to consider other offers, the North Londoners can consider themselves in the mix at this point.
Vlahovic certainly ticks every box. He’s quick, powerful, mobile and with a sniper’s eye for goal. Bet Victor currently have him at 3/1 to make the move to the Emirates.
West Ham continue to go places under David Moyes.
The Scot has long since ceased to be a laughing stock, and with wins this season in the various competitions over Man United, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea, if the squad can steer clear of any more serious injuries, they have to be considered as genuine contenders again.
Representatives of Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa are believed to have recently held talks with the Hammers.
The Brazilian is keen on a move back to Europe in order to put himself front and centre in the lead up to World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
With Michail Antonio having noted that he’d also prefer a decent front man to give him some competition in attack, and reports suggesting that Gabigol is keen to join the East Londoners, the only stumbling block appears to be getting a deal over the line.
Moyes is loath to go for a straight permanent deal and is believed to want a loan initially with a potential purchase option further down the line.
That’s something Gabigol’s current club Flamengo won’t entertain, however. The Brazilian remains at 4/1 for a switch to the capital.
There’s definitely been a new manager bounce seen at White Hart Lane. What a job Antonio Conte is already doing at Spurs.
The Italian is quietly going about his work with his side coming up on the rails of all of the other teams around them, but with the minimum of fuss. Certainly, they’ve evaded the glare from the media to a degree.
Conte has always been a winner wherever he’s been, and that single-minded belief now appears to be rubbing off on his players.
They’ve still not lost in the Premier League under Conte, and their performances are improving all the time.
However, they’ve fared less well in the cup competitions, and Conte even said after the first leg defeat against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup semi-final that he didn’t see “the resolution of our problems in the transfer window. There is a lot of work to do. We are not right.”
Currently sat in seventh, United are just four points shy of Arsenal and so are well within striking distance at this stage.
Their issue is building up a head of steam because it’s been two steps forward and one back all season long.
Even a change of manager has done nothing to quell the unrest at the club, and there’s a strong likelihood that there’ll be more players leaving Old Trafford than there will be coming in.
According to recent reports, the entire squad appear unhappy with Ralf Rangnick’s methods, his training sessions, his general demeanour and his backroom staff.
As many as 11 members of the first-team squad are said to want to move on in January or by the summer at the latest.
Eric Bailly, Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are just four that are reportedly disillusioned by the goings on at present.
The Frenchman seems the most likely to go with Rangnick publicly acknowledging that fact and that he won’t stand in the wide man’s way.
Van de Beek has clearly had enough too, though the manager has taken a totally different tack with him and suggested he will get games.
Given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made him much the same promise, a January move to Everton, who have expressed an interest in the Dutchman, isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.