We're coming into the end of the season, with every team save Chelsea and Leicester having less than ten games left in which to battle it out for final positions. Chelsea's form for most of the season has left little intrigue as to who will come out on top, but below them, only eight points separates second place Man City from seventh place Spurs.
While in recent years, this has been a time for Liverpool fans to sit back and watch with a relative lack of concern as their team languished in the deep chasm of the midtable, last season and this season has seen Liverpool right in the thick of things again. Another title run would be a step too far for even the most optimistic of fans, but the automatic Champions League qualifying second and third place positions are still very much up for grabs.
The top seven have performed abysmally in both the domestic and European cups this season. Chelsea may have beaten Spurs to lift the Capital One Cup, but they bombed out of both the FA Cup and the Champions League. In fact, after this most recent round of Champions League games, every English team has now been booted from the tournament. Only fourteenth place (ha!) Everton are left representing England in European competitions, with a second leg battle against Dynamo Kiev today in the Europa League Round of 16.
This leaves Arsenal and Liverpool with anything other than the league to focus on from now until the end of the season. Liverpool are set for a replay away to Blackburn in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup on April 8, while Arsenal have already secured their spot at Wembley to face Reading on April 18.
Every team is going to try to make each one of these last handful of matches count, because at this stage and with the table as tight as it is, any dropped points may mean a corresponding drop in their final position. With all that in mind, let's take a deeper look at the remaining nine (or ten, in Chelsea's case) fixtures for the current top seven teams.
(Matches against top seven opponents are in italics):
Liverpool: Man Utd (h), Arsenal (a), Newcastle (h), Hull (a), West Brom (a), QPR (h), Chelsea (a), Crystal Palace (h), Stoke (a)
Tottenham: Leicester (h), Burnley (a), Aston Villa (h), Newcastle (a), Southampton (a), Man City (h), Stoke (a), Hull (h), Everton (h)
Southampton: Burnley (h), Everton (a), Hull (h), Stoke (h), Tottenham (h), Sunderland (a), Leicester (a), Aston Villa (h), Man City (a)
Manchester United: Liverpool (a), Aston Villa (h), Man City (h), Chelsea (a), Everton (a), West Brom (h), Crystal Palace (a), Arsenal (h), Hull (a)
Arsenal: Newcastle (a), Liverpool (h), Burnley (a), Sunderland (h)(postp), Chelsea (h), Hull (a), Swansea (h), Man Utd (a), West Brom (h)
Manchester City: West Brom (h), Crystal Palace (a), Man Utd, West Ham (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), QPR (h), Swansea (a), Southampton (h)
Chelsea: Hull (a), Stoke (h), QPR (a), Man Utd (h), Arsenal (a), Leicester (a), Crystal Palace (h), Liverpool (h), West Brom (a), Sunderland (h)
The next two games for Liverpool are very important, but it might be in our favor that we get them out of the way and still have seven games to try and make up for any points dropped. Once they're past that hurdle, the rest of the season is comparatively easy, so long as they don't find themselves bending under the weight of narrative. Bad memories of last season's Chelsea/Crystal Palace one-two sucker punch shouldn't affect their performance in this season's matching fixtures, though comparisons are naturally going to be made, particularly if the fight for top four is ongoing at that point. Logic says that Liverpool will drop points at some point. To not to would mean maintaining a fourteen game winning streak and twenty-one game undefeated run. Even Brendan Rodgers believes the team will drop seven points before the season concludes. Limiting the damage and for god's sake not losing to United again should be the main focus.
Looking past Liverpool, the initial thought here is that Manchester United face a pretty grueling five weeks, with matches against Liverpool, City and Chelsea along with a revitalized Aston Villa side and Everton, who should at least put up a fight. This bodes well for Liverpool, because it may not mean absolute despair, should they drop all six points against United and Arsenal in the coming two weeks.
In fact, the only team in the league with a worse set of remaining fixtures in front of them is poor, poor Hull, who currently sit in fifteenth place, three points above the drop zone, with every top seven team, save Manchester City, still to play before the season's up. Say a quick prayer for our friends to the east, if for no other reason than that we want them still battling for safety come the end of April and May when they're set to take on Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. [As an aside: the team with the easiest remaining fixtures is West Ham, who face a mirror image of Hull's schedule. The only top seven team they're still to face is City.]
On paper, Spurs have the easiest fixture list, though that depends entirely on whether they can bounce back from their humiliating defeat at Old Trafford and, more crucially, on what condition lynchpin Harry Kane is returned to the club in after his first senior England call-up by Roy Wrecking Ball Hodgson. The biggest test of their next four matches is likely to be Aston Villa, assuming that Tim Sherwood is, in fact, a tactical genius and Villa aren't just experiencing the well-documented but fleeting new manager bump. Spurs' last two games of the season may well be against a Hull side who are already relegated and a dejected Everton side with nothing to play for.
Southampton have a similarly light schedule, with their games against Spurs and Man City being the two stand outs. They've experienced the predicted end of the season exhaustion, and their performances over the past two months have dipped considerably from their fantastic form in the first two-thirds of the season. Because of this, matches against the likes of Stoke or Everton, always a bit tricky anyway, might prove even more difficult.
Unless Chelsea's recent dip in form proves catastrophic, it's unlikely that they will lose the league at this late point, especially with their game in hand. (Do I think Manchester City deserve to nick another league title after the season they've had? Nope. Would I be happy if that somehow happened? You better believe it.) What's important for Liverpool, then, is which of their direct rivals Chelsea might take points off of. Aside from their game against Liverpool, they play Manchester United and Arsenal back to back after both of those teams challenge Liverpool.
Arsenal and Man City both play three of the top seven. However, in the cases of both of these teams, the more important question is about their current form. Can Arsenal maintain their run of stellar performances? If so, they look capable of beating any team they face. Arsenal are Arsenal, though, and at times seem to be their own worst enemy. Similarly, Manchester City are said to be a team in decline, in crisis. The way they're playing in the league at the moment would make any fixture a toss-up. But is it reasonable to expect a team with that much quality not to bounce back quickly?
The end of the season always brings with it a genuine surprise or two. Last season that went against Liverpool when they allowed City to nab the title. This season the stakes are lower, but climbing from tenth in December to steal a top four spot would certainly put a smile on many fans' faces, especially if it was at the expense of Manchester United.