Premier League race for the top four: Favourites for Europe, wildcard picks and more

It was only 48 hours ago that the hunt for the top four seemed an exercise in futility for some of the league’s biggest clubs.

The creation of the European Super League threatened the existence of the Champions League and therefore the purpose of the manic race for the top four that goes along with it.

Now, with the existential threat to football all but quashed, one of the most exciting subplots to any Premier League season continues in the race to secure European football.

Liverpool's mighty fall from grace, West Ham's Lingard-led revival and Thomas Tuchel's regimented Chelsea are some of the ingredients for what promises to be an explosive conclusion to the 2020/21 campaign.

Here are the six sides in the mix for a finish in the Premier League top four.

Leicester City

Current position: 3rd

Current top four odds4/9 (favourites)

Top four odds at the start of the season: 10/1

Key player: Wilfred Ndidi

Wilfred Ndidi can help Leicester to Champions League football
Wilfred Ndidi can help Leicester to Champions League football

The 24-year-old has gone from strength to strength this season and has been nothing less than pivotal for Brendan Rodgers.

Ndidi, in his fifth season in the Midlands, is ranked fourth in the league for successful pressure percentage amongst midfielders and seventh amongst midfielders in possession-winning tackles, according to FBref.com.

Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers

In his first full season at the King Power stadium, Brandan Rodgers will be hoping to go one place better than his fifth-placed finish last season.

It looks like the Northern Irishman could do just that. Should he secure Champions League football, it would mark Leicester's return to the competition since their appearance in 2016/17.

Nevertheless, a stagnation in form at the wrong time of the season poses an issue for the Foxes. The club have lost half of their last six games and currenlty find themselves 12th in the Premier League form table.

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In the actual table, Leicester sit in third place; a point ahead of nearest competitors Chelsea with a game in hand.

City will be buoyed by securing a trip to Wembley for the FA Cup Final with a win over Southampton. That victory came after a loss against West Ham where Kelechi Iheanacho single-handedly brought his side back into the game, only for the Foxes to suffer a 3-2 defeat.

Leicester's remaining fixtures pose a mountainous task, facing three top four hopefuls and two sides fighting to beat the drop.

Leicester's remaining fixtures:

April 26 - Crystal Palace (H)

April 30 - Southampton (A)

May 7 - Newcastle (H)

May 11- Manchester United (A)

* May 15- Chelsea (A)

May 23 - Tottenham (H)

*subject to change due to TV fixture scheduling and FA Cup final fixture

Leicester are tasked with holding their position amongst a fixture onslaught. Most notably is the cruel final triplet of games against top six sides, two of which coming away from the King Power stadium.

However, Leicester are durable having remained in the top four for the season's majority. They will have to treat their remaining fixtures as cup finals, not only as preparation for their actual cup final on May 15, but also as a way of firming their grip on Champions League football next year.

Verdict: Miss out

Along with juggling preparation for a chance to win their first ever FA Cup, a tricky fixture list may prove too much for Leicester. But, Brendan Rodgers' men will fight till the last.

Chelsea

Current position: 4th

Current top four odds: 10/11

Top four odds at the start of the season: 1/2

Key player: Mason Mount

Mount celebrates scoring against Southampton
Mount celebrates scoring against Southampton

In an unbelievably deep midfield, Mount has talked himself into being a certain starter for Gareth Southgate's side at the upcoming European Championships, perhaps previously inconceivable at the start of the season.

While his notable contributions mostly come from going forward (ranks fourth in the league in shot creating actions per 90, ninth in the league amongst midfielders in the league for progressive passes, according to FBref.com), Mount has showed his versatility in being able to sit back in a midfield of two to allow for an extra attacking midfielder, just as shown against Brighton in their most recent game.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel looking to end the season in the top four
Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel looking to end the season in the top four

Chelsea's season has typically been tampered with changes in the dugout. Club legend Frank Lampard was relieved of his duties in January and Thomas Tuchel replaced him to become the 15th manager in the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea.

Tuchel has transformed Chelsea into a regimented side, with only two losses in his tenure thus far. With much at stake in Chelsea's other footballing ventures this season, a potential double and a top four finish will fastrack the German into footballing folklore at the Bridge.

With only one loss in their last 15 league games coming in socking fashion against Sam Allardyce's West Brom, Chelsea remain in red-hot form approaching the run-in.

Chelsea's remaining fixtures:

April 24 - West Ham (A)

May 1 - Fulham (H)

May 8 - Manchester City (A)

May 12  - Arsenal (H)

* May 15 - Leicester (H)

May 23 - Aston Villa (A)

*subject to change due to TV fixture scheduling

The Blues' fixtures are, much like Leicester's - unfavourable conditions for a team looking to cement their position in the highly desirable top four.

Whilst league positions vary, they include matchups against the league leaders, two top four candidates, a London derby and a relegation contender with it all to play for.

If you were to back a team based on current form to emerge from the other side fairly unscathed, then Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea would be high on the list.

Verdict: Top Four

A top four finish should remain the paramount point of contention in the Chelsea camp between now and May. That's despite the understandable draw of a second Champions League trophy and ninth FA Cup.

West Ham

Current position: 5th

Current top four odds: 3/1

Top four odds at the start of the season: N/A

Key player: Jesse Lingard

West Ham star, Jesse Lingard
West Ham star, Jesse Lingard

The Manchester United loanee has amassed an incredible nine goals and four assists in his ten league appearances for the Irons; more than his last two seasons combined.

Rumour is rife as to whether West Ham will pay the reported £21.5million fee, but his impact has been a key component in the David Moyes renaissance in east London.

David Moyes does not expect an exodus of players if West Ham miss out on Europe
David Moyes does not expect an exodus of players if West Ham miss out on Europe

Moyes came back for a second bite at the cherry at West Ham after trading places with Manuel Pellegrini last season. After steering the ship clear of relegation, the former Manchester United manager has bypassed a commendable mid table finish and transformed his team into European hopefuls.

While some signings such as Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma have failed to live up to the billing, the supporting cast have done everything and more required of them.

The aforementioned Lingard, alongside Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek have put in talismanic physical performances in the middle of the park. The latter has also become a cult fantasy football hero, chipping in with nine goals.

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Remaining unbeaten against big London rivals and fellow top four chasers Tottenham, along with walking away with a point against Manchester City earlier on in the season, are indicative of the Hammers' level this year.

While slightly underperforming in terms of form (7th in the form table, W3, D1, L2 in last six games), being level on points with Chelsea and two points ahead of Tottenham with a game in hand puts them right in the mixer for European football.

West Ham's remaining fixtures:

April 24 - Chelsea (H)

May 3 - Burnley (A)

May 9 - Everton (H)

May 11 - Brighton (A)

* May 15 - West Brom (A)

May 23 - Southampton (H)

*subject to change due to TV fixture scheduling

West Ham's remaining outlook past their upcoming clash against Chelsea is easy on the eye for Moyes and co.

Sides potentially faced with relegation will undoubtedly pose a big risk - this includes the likes of Burnley and West Brom.

Chelsea's arrival to the London Stadium this Saturday could be beneficial for their future list, allowing time to make up for any potential points lost in the rather kind run-in.

Verdict: Wildcard

The run-in plus their eyes not being drawn to silverware elsewhere *might* just work in West Ham's favour.

While other sides are more favoured to take the top four glory, it will nonetheless be a fantastic season and an overachieving one should it be Europa League football being played in east London next year.

Tottenham

Current position: 6th

Current top four odds: 13/2

Top four odds at the start of the season: 7/2

Key player: Harry Kane

Can Harry Kane lead Spurs back to the Champions League?
Can Harry Kane lead Spurs back to the Champions League?

The stalwart striker has been ever reliable for his beloved club this year, currently sitting top of the goal scoring and assists charts with 21 and 13 each respectively this season.

His partnership with fellow goal magnet Heung-min Son has been the stuff of record-breaking form, combining for more goals in a single season than any other duo in the Premier League era.

But with rumours about a move away from Spurs being louder than ever before, it may seem the Tottenham faithful might have to enjoy the form while it lasts.

Ryan Mason wants ‘a good energy’ around Tottenham after ESL debacle
Ryan Mason wants ‘a good energy’ around Tottenham after ESL debacle

With their odds of a top four finish effectively doubling between the start of the season and now, it seems increasingly likely that Tottenham won't be playing Champions League football for the first time in five seasons.

The recent dismissal of Jose Mourinho, seemingly swept under the carpet amongst the European Super League furore, will only create more upheaval in a bid to secure a top four finish.

Talk of a title push under serial winner Mourinho was not unquestionable as 2020 drew to a close. However, it was effectively hushed as quickly as it was drummed up with a downturn in form from January into February.

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New signing Pierre Emile Hojbjerg has been a shrewd pickup from Southampton, a midfield general and aggressor that has put in multiple man of the match performances for his new club.

Spurs, in regard to form, have been middle of the road picking up eight points from an available 18. With former player Ryan Mason in charge at the tender age of 29, Daniel Levy has gambled on Spurs' fortunes despite the heartwarming nature of the appointment.

Tottenham's remaining fixtures:

May 2- Sheffield United (h), 20th

May 8- Leeds United (a), 10th

May 12- Wolves (h), 12th

* May 15- Aston Villa (h), 11th

May 23- Leicester (a), 3rd

*subject to change due to TV fixture scheduling

While not misleading, Tottenham's league table position is based on having played maximum games (33), while three other of their top four rivals have a game in hand. Two teams even have two games in hand.

The final day encounter with Leicester has the potential to be a top four showdown. However, Spurs will have to pick up near enough maximum points between now and then for that to happen.

Verdict: Miss out

The bizarre sacking of Jose Mourinho and potential for other teams to capitalise with games in hand has shortened any chances of Spurs sneaking into the top four.

Liverpool

Current position: 7th

Current top four odds: 5/6

Top four odds at the start of the season: 1/12

Key player: Fabinho

Liverpool star, Fabinho
Liverpool star, Fabinho

One of the few constants in Liverpool's upside down season has been the Brazilian 'lighthouse'.

The midfielder-come-centre-back has done his best to plug the defensive holes that have plagued the Reds' season.

Fabinho is in the 99th percentile of tackles made per 90 across Europe's top five leagues this year (3.20), according to FBref.com.

Liverpool's Diogo Jota celebrates with Mohamed Salah and Fabinho after scoring against Wolves
Liverpool's Diogo Jota celebrates with Mohamed Salah and Fabinho after scoring against Wolves

The aforementioned injury list, alongside an inability to adequately replenish reinforcements in the transfer market, has underpinned Liverpool's drastic change in fortunes this season.

The highs of successive silverware-laden campaigns have come crashing down this time around. From inglourious exits from competitions at the hands of Real Madrid and Manchester United, to beating previously unthinkable records of going unbeaten at home in 68 successive domestic games and following that with six successive home defeats.

Unfathomable talks of Klopp leaving his post at Anfield were only magnified in the European Super League debacle, but a top four finish should put rumours to bed and ensure one of the world's best managers gets to play in the world's premier club competition.

While the jury remains out on acquisitions like Thiago Alcantara, Diogo Jota has run Fabinho close for the club's player of the year, with 12 goals in all competitions.

Liverpool's remaining fixtures:

May 2- Manchester United (A)

May 8 - Southampton (H)

May 11 - West Brom (A)

* May 15 - Burnley (A)

May 23 - Crystal Palace (H)

*subject to change due to TV fixture scheduling

Liverpool's remaining fixtures, only one of which comes against top half opposition, gives them a favourable run in to break into the top four for the first time since mid February.

Manchester United, just eight points behind Manchester City, will have it all to play for in two weeks time. Playing three potentially relegation stricken sides will pose it's own challenges and are in no way gimme points.

Verdict: Top four

Liverpool's determination to avoid playing in Europe's second tier competition, for a sense of pride combined with financial motives, will mean that the Reds will go all out for a place amongst the league's best in the top four.

A relatively less demanding schedule will also serve the Anfield side well.

Everton

Current position: 8th

Current top four odds: 33/1

Top four odds at the start of the season: 20/1

Key player: Dominic Calvert-Lewin

Carlo Ancelotti backs Everton strike duo Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison
Carlo Ancelotti backs Everton strike duo Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison

The front man is Everton's top goalscorer with an impressive 19 returns in all competitions. The young talent has at times been starved of service, which shows his potential for bigger goal tallies in the future as he plays himself into international contention.

Carlo Ancelotti's maiden full season on Merseyside has had some standout moments but has been often blighted by inconsistency.

Everton manager, Carlo Ancelotti
Everton manager, Carlo Ancelotti

The Toffees were in the conversation for a top four place after a blistering start, remaining unbeaten in their first five games, beating Tottenham and drawing with rivals Liverpool in the process.

Despite not winning any of their last five, the Italian is adamant that his side are in the hunt for a top four space until the final day. Walking away winless from encounters with Burnley and Brighton shows that it is still all to play for in the final stages of the season.

Everton's remaining fixtures:

May 1 - Aston Villa (H)

May 9 - West Ham (A)

May 11 - Sheffield United (H)

* May 15 - Wolves (H)

May 23 - Manchester City (A)

*subject to change due to TV fixture scheduling

Everton have a mixed bag of remaining games. At the back end of top four hopefuls, matchups against the likes of Aston Villa and Wolves may present a more difficult challenge compared to their other top four counterparts.

Bookended with games against the top and bottom sides, it may be a challenge for Everton to break into the top four this year.

Verdict: Miss out

Four points away from their Merseyside counterparts and six from the top four itself makes it a difficult, although not insurmountable, task to reach the top four.

Having them in this conversation this late in the season is encouraging and something Carlo Ancelotti's side can build upon next year.

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