In this strangest of soccer seasons, one piece of conventional wisdom appears to have held true: the climax of every season begins as soon as players return from the March international break. Though there’s no drama left in the Premier League title race thanks to the Manchester City juggernaut, the return of domestic action this past weekend laid the groundwork for what should be one of the best and tightest top four races in recent memory. Thanks to some Liverpool magic reminiscent of the club’s dominant title-winning campaign last season, as well as dropped points by three key rivals, there are now solidly six teams in the hunt for just two Champions League qualification spots.
While the aforementioned Manchester City and its local rival Manchester United are locks to clinch two of the Champions League qualification spots, everything below them is in flux. Currently, Leicester City sits in third with 56 points, while Chelsea clings to the fourth spot with 51. In order below them: Tottenham with 49, Liverpool with 49, West Ham with 49 and one game in hand, and Everton with 46 and two games in hand. Those point totals are tighter than expected after a wild weekend in England, which saw dropped points left and right.
It started early on Saturday. Every UCL hopeful not named Chelsea has to be thanking West Bromwich Albion after the Baggies thumped the 10-man Blues 5–2 at Stamford Bridge. It’s always newsworthy when a top team gets bludgeoned by the second-worst team in the league, but doubly so when there’s such congestion right below it on the table.
Since you can’t really blame Leicester for not widening its lead, as it had the bad luck to play and lose to Manchester City right after Chelsea’s collapse, it was Liverpool that was the first and, as of now, only club to take advantage of the mayhem at the top of the table. The Reds traveled to North London to face Arsenal, which is never an easy match even in Arsenal’s dimmest days. On Saturday, though, Liverpool dominated the middle of the park thanks to the duo of Thiago and, especially, Fabinho. It was a pleasure to see the Brazilian back in his natural position at the base of midfield, after spending much of the season as an (albeit excellent) emergency center back.
Liverpool struggled to finish any of the myriad of chances it created in the first half, but the game opened up with the introduction of Diogo Jota in the second half. The Portuguese super-sub scored the opening goal and put an exclamation point on the 3–0 victory with another strike, with Mohamed Salah providing a goal in between:
In one day, Liverpool had a six-point swing on Chelsea, which could prove massively important for the reigning champion’s final table position. As recently as Friday evening, it looked like Liverpool’s best chance to make the Champions League next year might be to win the competition this season—something that became a bit easier once it was reported that Sergio Ramos would miss both of Real Madrid’s quarterfinals matches against the Pool Boys. To put some numbers behind it, Liverpool’s fruitful Saturday shot them up from a 27 percent underdog to finish in the top four to a 57 percent favorite, according to Five Thirty Eight’s projections. Even with that six-point swing, Liverpool still has ground to make up, and is far from the only club looking to bump Chelsea out of the top four. One of those aspirants failed pretty miserably on Sunday, though, as Tottenham was only able to draw Newcastle 2–2, putting Spurs and Liverpool level on points, with the former currently ahead on goal difference.
Let’s not forget West Ham or Everton, either, who both remain in the chase. West Ham plays Wolverhampton on Monday; that’s not an easy game, but even a draw would put them ahead of both Spurs and Liverpool. Everton hosts to Crystal Palace today, which is also a tough game but one that the Merseyside club should expect to at least draw.
Regardless of what happens in Monday’s games, this weekend made clear that we’re headed for an intense finale to this season. Liverpool’s ascension up the table has thrown a powerhouse into the mix, along with this year’s best story—West Ham was predicted to be a mid-to-low table finisher, but David Moyes and Co. have wildly over-performed—and an Everton side that absolutely nailed the summer transfer market. Chelsea, Tottenham, and Leicester City are no slouches either, even as the first two have struggled with managerial issues and injuries. In this incredibly topsy-turvy season, there are only two near-certainties left in the top half of the Premier League table: one, Manchester City is going to win the league; two, and more excitingly for fans of car crashes, the race for the Champions League will go down to the last days of this jam-packed nightmare of a year.