Manchester City and Liverpool are showing no signs of letting up in their thrilling Premier League title race but their flawless form contrasts sharply with the struggles of the teams chasing a top-four finish.
Manchester United host Chelsea on Sunday hoping to arrest an alarming slide of seven defeats in nine games in all competitions.
But it is only thanks to the poor form of Maurizio Sarri’s men and Arsenal, who have suffered back-to-back defeats against Crystal Palace and Wolves, that United remain in the hunt for Champions League football next season, just three points off the top four.
United’s latest defeat to City on Wednesday lifted the defending champions one point ahead of Liverpool with three games left for both sides.
That stretched City’s winning streak in the league to 11 games, with the last slip-up by either of the title contenders remarkably now nearly two months ago, when Liverpool were held at Everton.
Liverpool have already surpassed their club-record points tally in the Premier League era, with 88, and Jurgen Klopp’s side are expected to retake top spot when already relegated Huddersfield visit Anfield on Friday.
“Now it’s clear we are one point behind City and we knew for a long time if we win our next two games then the decision will be made in the last matchday, and that’s quite special,” said Klopp on Thursday.
City are not in action until Sunday, when they travel to Burnley, and manager Pep Guardiola is wary of his side getting too over-excited at clearing what was expected to be the toughest hurdle left at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
“I know people are going to talk about how beautiful we are, how handsome we are,” said Guardiola. “But now we have to go to Burnley — and in my two previous seasons going to Burnley was incredibly tough.”
City, who amassed a record haul of 100 points last season, still dropped two at Turf Moor in a 1-1 draw.
Solskjaer seeks goals
Behind the top two, Tottenham look well set to secure a fourth straight season of Champions League football, opening up a four-point gap on fifth-placed Arsenal thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton on Tuesday.
Spurs can widen that lead over their north London rivals even further when West Ham travel to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday hoping to become the first visiting team to score at the fifth time of asking in the club’s new home.
Arsenal could then move into the top four early on Sunday if they can cure their travel sickness and shore up a dismal defensive record at Leicester.
A point would be enough to edge Unai Emery’s men above Chelsea on goal difference before Sarri’s team kick off at Old Trafford, where United will aim to end a near nine-hour drought without scoring from open play.
“We need more quality on Sunday,” admitted United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
“Of course we want to get into the top four. I haven’t been planning on playing on Thursday nights (in the Europa League) yet. We just have to make sure we give ourselves a chance on Sunday.”
Battle for seventh and survival
The prospect of Europa League football may not be enticing for Solskjaer but Watford, Wolves, Everton and Leicester are all showing their appetite for European football with seventh enough for Europa League qualification if City beat Watford in the FA Cup final.
Wolves are in pole position and travel to Watford on Saturday seeking revenge for their FA Cup semi-final collapse after blowing a 2-0 lead in the final 11 minutes.
And it is a huge weekend for Cardiff’s chances of catching Brighton and avoiding relegation.
The Welsh side, third from bottom, trail Brighton by three points and have an inferior goal difference, but travel to already relegated Fulham before Brighton, who have not scored for seven games, host Newcastle later on Saturday.
© Agence France-Presse