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Friday, January 21, 2022

Premier League Top 4 Battle Round Up

The Premier League was tensed up on the final day as the Top Four Battle showdown kept fans glued to their Screens.

Man Utd and Chelsea’s development will be boosted by Champions League qualification after Leicester lost out in the top-four race…

Leicester finish fifth and qualify for next season’s Europa League with Jamie Vardy winning the Premier League Golden Boot. It is not an outcome that many Leicester supporters would have been disappointed with this time last year. Right now it must feel wretched.

Brendan Rodgers’ side began the year as Liverpool’s closest challengers with a 14-point lead over Manchester United in fifth. Champions League football looked all-but secure by January. There would be time to plot the summer signings with a top-four finish guaranteed.

But Leicester were down in fifth and below Manchester United even before their 2-0 home defeat to them on the final day of the season. Unfortunately, any sense of optimism had long since been sapped. It has been a slow and painful slide for everyone involved.

Injuries have not helped and a squad that looked deep enough at one point has clearly been stretched. Rodgers has faced criticism too with his tactical decisions coming under scrutiny.

It is an atmosphere that Leicester must change quickly with such a swift turnaround before next season. There is a lot right at the club and – in normal circumstances – that should mean excitement is the main emotion surrounding a talented group of players.

Man United’s rise in 2020
But while Leicester have slipped out of those top-four places – finally dropping to fifth on Wednesday after spending 30 matchdays in the Champions League spots – Manchester United’s relentless rise in 2020 took them all the way up to third place.

Champions League qualification felt like a distant prospect for United in January, when a 2-0 loss at home to Burnley left them six points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer under pressure.

But the turnaround is complete. Since that miserable evening at Old Trafford, Manchester United have gone 14 Premier League games unbeaten, taking 32 points from a possible 42 and changing the complexion of their season. They finish best of the rest behind Liverpool and Manchester City, ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

It owes a lot to the signing of Bruno Fernandes in the winter window. The Portugal international made an immediate impact at the club and finishes the Premier League season with eight goals and seven assists in just 14 appearances. At 25, United will be encouraged that he can get even better.

What was just as significant, of course, was that Fernandes also brought the best out of those around him. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood were a joy to watch in the final months of the campaign, their slick combination play and devastating counter-attacks reminiscent of Manchester United’s best sides under Sir Alex Ferguson.

There were hiccups along the way, the latest coming against West Ham in the penultimate game of the season, but those hiccups were nothing compared to Leicester’s loss of form and they held their nerve when it mattered at the King Power Stadium, the 2-0 win ensuring Manchester United finished on a high. Back in the Champions League. Back where they belong.

Chelsea’s transition
In contrast to Leicester and Manchester United, the story of Chelsea’s league position has not been one of slide or rise but of a consistent run in those crucial top-four positions – even if ‘consistent’ is not a word to describe their actual performances on the pitch

There have been slip-ups and big defeats which have underlined the major work required to transform Chelsea back into title contenders. Wayward form and repeated errors in defence have highlighted the need for players from outside of the club to be added to what they already have.

But ultimately their two-goal hit just before half-time against Wolves has seen them seal a top-four finish and the bonus of Saturday’s FA Cup final with Arsenal makes this a successful season for Frank Lampard and Chelsea.

Context is everything and over the course of a season which has lasted almost an entire year, it is worth remembering the expectations on Lampard when he took charge of Chelsea at the start of just his second season as a manager. With Eden Hazard sold, a transfer ban and a remit to work with the club’s young talent this was seen as a season of transition.

Lampard landmark
Chelsea finished fourth under manager Frank Lampard – the highest finish for an English manager in their debut Premier League campaign since Frank Clark with Nottingham Forest in 1994-95 (3rd).

Now, with Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech signed and their Champions League status set to make acquisitions of the required defensive personnel easier, Chelsea have a strong platform to kick on again.

The same goes for Manchester United. With Lampard, Solskjaer and their squads another season older, wiser and developed there will be less sympathy if mistakes are repeated and more scrutiny on their progress back to the top.

But by making the cut and ensuring they are competing in Europe’s elite club competition this season they have a launchpad to kick on again.

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