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The race for the Champions League: Who will claim the coveted top four spots?

It has already been a gloriously open battle for Europe with the new Premier League season just eight games underway.

Two top-flight giants in Manchester United and Tottenham are badly faltering and surprise high-flyers are threatening to take their place.

Here, Sportsmail delves into the race for the top four and analyses the strengths and weaknesses of every side vying for the coveted European spots so far… 

Leicester City are flying high in fourth spot as the race for the Champions League continues

Leicester City are flying high in fourth spot as the race for the Champions League continues

But Manchester United are already off the pace in the top four battle after a stuttering start

But Manchester United are already off the pace in the top four battle after a stuttering start

NEXT FIVE GAMES

20 October – Manchester United (A)

27 October – Tottenham (H)

2 November – Aston Villa (A)

10 November – Manchester City (H)

23 November – Crystal Palace (A) 

THE TOP SIX 

Liverpool

Current league position: 1st (24 points)

The reigning European champions fell just one point short in an enthralling title race last season, but Jurgen Klopp’s men currently sit top of the league this term and have shown no indication they will relinquish their grip on the summit.

Strengths: 

The Anfield side have clinched eight victories from their first eight league games, and have scrapped for maximum points even when worked hard to do so. James Milner’s stoppage time winner against Leicester from the penalty spot perfectly encapsulates the fighting spirit, and never say die attitude, that has now become synonymous with Liverpool.   

They also boast the most formidable defence in the division, with just six goals shipped so far even in the absence of first choice stopper Alisson Becker.

And with a squad that has proved itself capable of challenging across multiple fronts, Liverpool will undoubtedly be favourites to finally clinch their 19th league title ahead of Manchester City.

James Milner scored a last-gasp penalty as Liverpool recorded their eighth straight victory

James Milner scored a last-gasp penalty as Liverpool recorded their eighth straight victory

Weaknesses: 

The Reds’ downfall may come from the pressure of sustaining a title bid. Last season, Liverpool had held a seven-point lead over City with both teams having played the same amount of games – but consecutive draws against Leicester and West Ham swung momentum back in the favour of Pep Guardiola’s star-studded side. 

The manager: 

The ever-enigmatic Klopp will be determined to lead his team to domestic glory this season, having come so close just a matter of months ago. The German tactician can be spotted kicking every ball along the touchline, and his rousing nature has inspired both his players and the Liverpool faithful packed into Anfield. 

He has spectacularly reunited the club off the field, and has proven himself tactically astute time and time again on it. 

Jurgen Klopp will be hoping he can lead his side one better after finishing in second last term

Jurgen Klopp will be hoping he can lead his side one better after finishing in second last term

Predicted finish: 1st

Liverpool have hit the ground running in their quest to better Manchester City, and will clinch the title because of their consistency, outstanding key performers and ferocious team mentality. 

NEXT FIVE GAMES

October 19 – Crystal Palace (A)

October 26 –  Aston Villa (H)

November 2 – Southampton (H)

November 10 – Liverpool (A)

November 23 – Chelsea (H) 

Manchester City

Current league position: 2nd (16 points) 

Manchester City appear worlds apart from the free-flowing outfit that had retained their crown last season. 

Guardiola’s side have already lost two games in their first eight fixtures, which is damning when compared to their overall total of four losses across the entire stretch of last season’s campaign. 

But with an eight-point gap already separating them from top spot, City will be aiming to prove their doubters wrong after the international break.

Manchester City can rely on Sergio Aguero's goals despite their patchy start to the campaign

Manchester City can rely on Sergio Aguero’s goals despite their patchy start to the campaign

Strengths:

The reigning champions have once again found themselves in a rich vein of scoring form this season, with the exception of their surprise home defeat against Wolves. 

City had rifled eight past Watford after slipping up against newcomers Norwich, and are guaranteed goals from Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus up front. The club’s widemen are also capable of recording impressive tallies for the campaign. 

Weaknesses:

City have appeared vulnerable defensively so far, with the departure of Vincent Kompany notably taking a toll on the club’s backline. Nicolas Otamendi was much maligned for his poor showing against Wolves, having committed to ground too easily for the visitors’ opener at the Etihad. 

Aymeric Laporte’s injury has also rocked the club, with Guardiola currently having to field Otamendi alongside Fernandinho in a makeshift centre half partnership.

But the champions were also worryingly sloppy going forward against their Midlands opponents. Their usual slick passages of passing around the 18-yard box were surprisingly non-existent, and the absence of Kevin de Bruyne made City appear bereft of ideas. 

Pep Guardiola's reigning champions have been notably rocked by their defensive frailties

Pep Guardiola’s reigning champions have been notably rocked by their defensive frailties

The manager:

Guardiola is no stranger to success, having guided both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to countless trophies before opting to take over City. And after a fourth-place finish in his first season in England, the Spaniard has transformed the top flight giants into centurions and back-to-back title winners. 

But he had also admitted in his book ‘Pep Confidential’ that ‘league titles are won in the final eight games, but they are lost in the first eight games’, and Guardiola is sure to be determined to bounce back from his team’s stuttering start.

Predicted finish: 2nd

City will rediscover the form that had propelled them to another league title last season, but will ultimately fall short this time around because of Liverpool’s strengths, rather than their own deficiencies. 

NEXT FIVE GAMES

October 21 – Sheffield United (A)

October 27 – Crystal Palace (H)

November 2 – Wolves (H)

November 9 – Leicester (A)

November 23 – Southampton (H) 

Arsenal

Current league position: 3rd (15 points)

Despite the pressure mounting on boss Unai Emery, Arsenal find themselves in third position heading into the international break. 

Results may be flattering the North London side, but the Gunners are grinding out points even when not performing anywhere near their best. 

Strengths:

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been in scintillating form in front of goal this season, with seven goals scored in eight games so far. The Gabonese frontman has bailed out his side, and manager, with crucial strikes – and youngster Gabriel Martinelli has also impressed since his arrival in the summer. 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has spared Arsenal's blushes with seven goals in eight games

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has spared Arsenal’s blushes with seven goals in eight games

The club possesses several other promising starlets, with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock handed first-team opportunities by Emery since the start of the current campaign.

Weaknesses:

Defensive frailties continue to threaten to derail Arsenal’s top four push once again this season. David Luiz, despite him netting his first goal for the club against Bournemouth, has been found in typically rash form in the penalty area and consequently been punished on several occasions. 

Shkodran Mustafi was unable to be shifted off the club’s wage bill in the summer too, with supporters left frustrated at the fashion in which their side concedes goals.

Boss Unai Emery must prove his doubters wrong by leading Arsenal back into the top four

Boss Unai Emery must prove his doubters wrong by leading Arsenal back into the top four 

The manager:

Emery is tasked with proving his doubters wrong with a break clause looming in his contract. The animated Spaniard has been criticised for his poor selections and questionable substitutions during games, as well as his refusal to field Mesut Ozil despite the star being match fit. 

But Arsenal fans will be hoping their boss can lead the team to a Champions League spot for next season, and are likely expecting to challenge for the Europa League once again. Anything less, and Emery could find himself searching for a new job in, or before, the summer.

Predicted finish: 4th 

Arsenal will clinch the final automatic Champions League place come the end of the season, but will be expected to drastically improve performances in order to spare Emery’s blushes. 

NEXT FIVE GAMES 

October 19 – Burnley (H)

October 25 – Southampton (A)

November 3 – Crystal Palace (A)

November 9 – Arsenal (H)

November 23 – Brighton (A) 

Leicester City 

Current league position: 4th (14 points) 

Leicester, under the stewardship of Brendan Rodgers, are no surprise high-flyers. The Foxes have experienced nothing less than upwards momentum under the former Liverpool and Swansea boss, and are a genuine contender for European football this season.

Strengths:

Leicester are showing no fear and have recorded impressive victories recently against Tottenham and Newcastle. The latter was an emphatic 5-0 demolition job, and reflected the goal scoring talent available to Rodgers in abundance. 

Jamie Vardy has netted five times in the league already, with James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira and Youri Tielemans also chipping in. 

Leicester are flying high under Brendan Rodgers and possess an enviable attacking force

Leicester are flying high under Brendan Rodgers and possess an enviable attacking force

In addition, the centre back duo of Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu has proved incredibly effective at shutting out opponents, with just seven goals conceded so far this campaign. 

The blend of youth and experience at the King Power renders Leicester genuine top-four contenders, and they are poised to capitalise on the transitions holding back Tottenham and Manchester United.  

Weaknesses:

The Foxes may find themselves overly reliant on an ageing Jamie Vardy for the bulk of their goals throughout the season, and consequently will need summer addition Ayoze Perez to start firing on all cylinders soon. The ex-Newcastle frontman laid on his third assist in three games at Anfield, but is still awaiting his maiden strike for his new team in the top flight. 

Rodgers has rightly drawn plaudits for transforming Leicester since replacing Claude Puel

Rodgers has rightly drawn plaudits for transforming Leicester since replacing Claude Puel

The manager:

46-year-old Rodgers has rightly drawn plaudits for his transformation of Leicester, who had lulled themselves into obscurity under the conservative leadership of predecessor Claude Puel. But with the arrival of the Welshman came a brand new, more exciting, style of play – and the next step for the club will be qualifying for Europe. 

Predicted finish: 6th 

Leicester will fall short of a top four spot despite battling bravely for much of the campaign, but may still clinch a Europa League place regardless.

NEXT FIVE GAMES

October 19 – Newcastle (H)

October 26 – Burnley (A)

November 2 – Watford (A)

November 9 – Crystal Palace (H)

November 23 – Manchester City (A) 

Chelsea

Current league position: 5th (14 points) 

Despite appearing defensively shaky under new boss Frank Lampard, the young and eager Chelsea side are scoring goals for fun as they renew their bid for European qualification. 

A transfer ban had hampered the club’s ability to splash the cash, but the newfound reliance on youngsters such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount has paid dividends.

Strengths:

The former is the joint-top scorer in the division, having netted eight times in the Blues’ opening fixtures. Mason Mount also boasts four goals to his name, and the dynamic English duo continue to link up to devastating effect. 

Chelsea ripped Southampton apart recently with a four-goal salvo on the south coast, in a performance that demonstrated the high-octane attacking style that Lampard is attempting to instill at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea's reliance on their youth has paid dividends with Tammy Abraham joint top scorer

Chelsea’s reliance on their youth has paid dividends with Tammy Abraham joint top scorer

Weaknesses:  

The London side have shipped 14 goals, however, meaning that they hold the fourth-worst defensive record in the division. A 4-0 defeat to Manchester United soured the club’s opening league fixture, and the Blues have kept just one clean sheet from their eight clashes – which came against Brighton in late September.

The manager:  

Club legend Lampard was installed in the summer and faced with a difficult season ahead. The transfer ban scuppered the chance to recruit reinforcements aside from Christian Pulisic, who has been largely sidelined since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund. 

But the 41-year-old is more than making the most out of his resources, and Chelsea are winning back the supporters who may have grown apathetic under Maurizio Sarri. 

The club's transfer ban had scuppered any summer signings aside from Christian Pulisic

The club’s transfer ban had scuppered any summer signings aside from Christian Pulisic

Predicted finish: 3rd

Provided Chelsea can solidify their leaky back line, the club’s fire power and impact substitutes will ensure the Blues are back into the Champions League for another season. 

NEXT FIVE GAMES 

October 19 – Manchester City (H)

October 27 – Arsenal (A)

November 3 – Leicester (H)

November 9 – Chelsea (A)

November 23 – Liverpool (H)

Crystal Palace

Current league position: 6th (14 points) 

An impressive start to the new campaign sees Roy Hodgson’s men flying high in sixth spot, just two points behind champions Manchester City. 

But their next five fixtures are incredibly tough assignments, which hold the capacity to inspire dreams of an unlikely European finish, or thrust the club into a mid-table battle. 

Strengths:

Palace have proven themselves stubborn to break down, and have suffered just one defeat in their last five fixtures as a welcome consequence. The Eagles also clinched a dramatic late victory against Manchester United in August, to record their first maximum points haul of the season. 

Crystal Palace striker Jordan Ayew has netted three times but the club are struggling for goals

Crystal Palace striker Jordan Ayew has netted three times but the club are struggling for goals

Weaknesses:

But at the other end of the field, Palace are struggling to convert chances. Frontman Jordan Ayew has netted three times so far, including the last-gasp tap-in at West Ham before the international break, but only Patrick van Aanholt has scored more than one goal with the rest of the squad lagging behind.

The manager:

Hodgson has openly revealed his wish for reinforcements in the January transfer window to continue his side’s momentum for a European challenge, but already Palace are arguably performing above expectations. 

The London side had comfortably avoided relegation under the wily 72-year-old last season, although it remains to be seen whether the former England boss will be able to lead his current club to the next step. 

Roy Hodgson has openly revealed his wish for January reinforcements for Palace's top six bid

Roy Hodgson has openly revealed his wish for January reinforcements for Palace’s top six bid

Predicted finish: 11th 

Despite the Eagles’ flying start to the season, the likely resurgence of Tottenham and Wolves’ improvement will mean that Palace will once again have to settle for a mid-table spot. They will comfortably steer clear of a bottom three scrap, however. 

THE OTHER CONTENDERS 

NEXT FIVE GAMES 

October 19 – Everton (A)

October 26 – Sheffield United (H)

November 2 – Newcastle (H)

November 9 – Burnley (A)

November 23 – Tottenham (H) 

West Ham 

Current league position: 8th 

West Ham are another of the capital’s clubs who have enjoyed a steady start to the new campaign. 

Strengths: 

The summer signing of French striker Sebastien Haller has proved a masterstroke from Hammers boss Manuel Pellegrini, with the 25-year-old having scored four league goals since his arrival. The club’s attacking riches may be the envy of several other sides below them, and they combined to great effect in the 2-0 victory against Manchester United at the London Stadium.

Summer signing Sebastien Haller has impressed since joining West Ham with four goals

Summer signing Sebastien Haller has impressed since joining West Ham with four goals

Weaknesses:

Inconsistency could once again prove detrimental to West Ham’s European bid. The superb showing against the Red Devils was followed with a run of three games without a win, including a humbling 4-0 defeat against Oxford United in the Carabao Cup.

The manager:

The former Manchester City boss has performed admirably since replacing David Moyes. Pellegrini led West Ham to a tenth place finish last season, in what was the club’s first since 2016. And having lifted the league trophy at the Etihad in the 2013-14 campaign, the 66-year-old may be the ideal figure to spearhead West Ham’s progression.

Ex-Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has performed admirably since taking the reins

Ex-Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has performed admirably since taking the reins

Predicted finish: 9th

The club’s unpredictable form will scupper any hopes of a European finish, but West Ham are certain to challenge for the top six spots for the majority of the season.

NEXT FIVE GAMES 

October 19 – Watford (H)

October 27 – Liverpool (A) 

November 3 – Everton (A)

November 9 – Sheffield United (H)

November 23 – West Ham (A) 

Tottenham 

Current league position: 9th 

Tottenham’s current woes are unlikely to stretch across the rest of the season, but the future of manager Mauricio Pochettino remains firmly up in the air.

Strengths:

Despite the poor results piling on a dark cloud around the club, Tottenham still possess several stars capable of fashioning openings from nothing. 

Harry Kane will guarantee Tottenham at least 20 goals this season despite the club's struggles

Harry Kane will guarantee Tottenham at least 20 goals this season despite the club’s struggles

Harry Kane will guarantee the club at least 20 goals a season, with Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura also more than capable of chipping in. Once confidence is restored, then Spurs’ centre half duo of Tony Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will surely shake off the below-par form that has dogged them.

Weaknesses:

However, there has been a notable lack of goals in the squad aside from Son and Kane so far this campaign. Players appears bereft of confidence amid ongoing rumours of dissatisfaction with Pochettino’s management, and tensions appear certain to rise until one or the other gives way. 

The pressure is mounting on Mauricio Pochettino to reignite Tottenham's European challenge

The pressure is mounting on Mauricio Pochettino to reignite Tottenham’s European challenge

The manager:

Despite his stellar work at the helm of the London giants, Pochettino has been unable to shake off the fact he is yet to lift a trophy in England. And it appears that the Argentine’s time in charge of the club is slowly coming to an end, with Tottenham having visibly regressed on the whole since their Champions League final defeat last season.

Predicted finish: 5th

Despite Spurs’ countless troubles, their form is likely to improve and the club will finish strongly to clinch fifth spot. But whether this will be achieved with Pochettino remains to be seen. 

NEXT FIVE GAMES 

October 19 – Southampton (H)

October 27 – Newcastle (A)

November 2 – Arsenal (A)

November 10 – Aston Villa (H)

November 23 – Bournemouth (A) 

Wolves

Current league position: 11th

The Midlands side appear to have recovered from their ponderous start to the new season, and even shocked champions Manchester City on their own turf. 

Strengths:

Despite Wolves’ early struggles, the club’s terrific counter-attacking showing at the Etihad was a result of Nuno Espirito Santo’s belief and the sheer danger caused by Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore late on. Two goals in the final ten minutes from the latter rounded off a gritty team performance, and the visitors should even have opened the scoring before Traore slotted beyond Ederson.

Adama Traore netted twice for Wolves in their shock 2-0 victory against Manchester City

Adama Traore netted twice for Wolves in their shock 2-0 victory against Manchester City

Weaknesses:

The club have been unable to hit the ground running because of sloppy defending. Last season Wolves were able to rely on their unrelenting back line to shut opponents out, but this term they have been punished for mistakes. Chelsea had plundered five goals at Molineux, and Everton also fired three as Wolves fell to back-to-back defeats.

The manager:

Santo’s coaching staff could be seen locked in a group embrace after Traore’s opener stunned Manchester City, and the Wolves boss is sure to have felt overwhelming relief after his side’s recent struggles. The club’s seventh-spot finish, following their promotion from the Championship the year before, was a testament to the Portuguese’s sterling work since taking the reins in 2017.

The club's seventh-placed finish last season is a testament to Nuno Espirito Santo's work

The club’s seventh-placed finish last season is a testament to Nuno Espirito Santo’s work

Predicted finish: 8th

Wolves will come close to repeating their achievement from last season, but will eventually fall short due to their marginally more porous defence.

NEXT FIVE GAMES 

October 20 – Liverpool (A)

October 27 – Norwich (A)

November 2 – Bournemouth (A)

November 10 – Brighton (H)

November 24 – Sheffield United (A) 

Manchester United

Current league position: 12th

Manchester United return from the international break to face leaders Liverpool in what could be a do-or-die clash for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 

The Old Trafford side’s inability to find the back of the net may mean the under-fire Norwegian is faced with an early exit, and the club must also tackle mounting dilemmas off the field.

Manchester United's clash against Liverpool could prove do-or-die for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United’s clash against Liverpool could prove do-or-die for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Strengths: 

The acquisition of Harry Maguire from Leicester has been a rare shaft of light for United, although the England international is still awaiting a consistent defensive partner. The performances of Axel Tuanzebe, Scott McTominay and the emergence of youngster Mason Greenwood have also pleased supporters in what has so far been a campaign of woe.

Weaknesses:

Considering Solskjaer’s goalscoring pedigree as a player, it comes as a surprise that his team are unable to find the back of the net. United’s dreadful form on the road has been well publicised, and the international break is unlikely to alleviate the attacking club’s issues.  

The international break is unlikely to alleviate the attacking issues present at the club

The international break is unlikely to alleviate the attacking issues present at the club

The manager:

Time is likely running out for Solskjaer to salvage United’s season. The 46-year-old is tasked with piecing together a run of form for his side which could reignite their fading European ambitions, but United inexplicably hover just two points above the bottom three and vice-chairman Ed Woodward may once again be forced to prematurely pull the trigger. 

Predicted finish: 7th

The club’s form may improve if Solskjaer is removed, but United must fix their goal scoring dilemma regardless by recruiting wisely in January in order to forge their way back up the table.

Original article: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-7547691/The-race-Champions-League-claim-coveted-four-spots.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ito=1490&ns_campaign=1490

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