The race for the Champions League spots has never been so tight and unpredictable.
A fair few nails will be bitten between now and the end of the season with seven teams vying for three spots and just five points separating Chelsea in fourth and Everton in eighth.
Champions elect Manchester City have all but guaranteed their place in next season’s competition but who will join them is anyone’s guess.
Manchester United and Leicester are comfortable at the moment but could still drop out
Chelsea currently occupy last Champions League spot but have four teams hot on their tails
Manchester United and Leicester have given themselves a great chance, having established an eight and seven-point buffer between themselves and West Ham in fifth.
But these are funny times and it’s been a funny old season, so an eleventh-hour collapse would hardly be veering off course from the narrative.
Liverpool missing out on a top-four spot would’ve been unthinkable at the start of the season, but Jurgen Klopp’s men have a five-point gap to close while Jose Mourinho was on the verge of being sacked before a win over Aston Villa brought Tottenham to within one win of the top four… and who could have foreseen West Ham’s brilliant campaign?
With only nine games left in the season – 10 if you’re Everton – starting with Chelsea’s game against West Brom at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, Sportsmail take a look at the key fixtures which could make or break the Champions League hopes of these seven contenders.
TOP FOUR ODDS
Man Utd: 1/16
West Ham: 11/2
Aston Villa: 200/1
*Odds supplied by Betfair
April 4: Arsenal vs Liverpool
It’s a sign of the times and Arsenal’s decline in recent years that the context around this fixture is not a battle between two top-four contenders.
No, even given how crazy this season has been, Arsenal have left themselves far too much to do to finish in the top four this season.
Mikel Arteta’s men have appeared to turn a page in recent weeks, though, which is why this fixtures makes the list.
Liverpool can hardly afford to drop anymore points and a trip to the Emirates will be no easy feat.
The pressure will likely get ramped up by Chelsea and Tottenham, who should win their games against West Brom and Newcastle before Liverpool’s match kicks-off – should being the all important word.
Jurgen Klopp will no doubt want to try and take the ascendancy and put a little bit of that pressure back on Everton and West Ham, who will play Crystal Palace and Wolves the next day.
No one could have imagined this prospect at the start of the season, but if Liverpool lose this game, they could well find themselves with a mountain to climb to get Champions League football.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have a tricky trip to the Emirates after the international break
April 11: West Ham v Leicester
David Moyes has always maintained that West Ham are the huge underdogs in the race for the top-four spots: that may have had something to do with their run-in.
West Ham are not getting carried away yet as much can change between now and the end of the season, and a quick look at the fixture list tells you they’ve got their work cut out.
They have three matches against fellow top-four hopefuls over a four-week period across April and May, starting with this one against Leicester.
West Ham can’t afford to lose focus like they did against Arsenal when Leicester come to town
The plus side to that is all of them are at home. but that won’t bring them much comfort for this particular match.
No team in the Premier League has won more points away from this season than Leicester, not even Manchester City.
So Moyes’ men will need to dig in deep to secure a result.
They’re certainly need to be more focused than they were at the weekend, when they squandered a three-goal lead to draw with Arsenal.
April 11: Tottenham v Man United
Oh how Mourinho would love for a repeat of the scoreline the last time these two sides met.
Tottenham thrashed United 6-1 at Old Trafford earlier on in the season. Back then there was talk of them challenging for the title.
Fast-forward six months, and the main discussion inside the corridors at Tottenham is whether or not Mourinho should be sacked.
Tottenham have a crucial match with Manchester United in their run-in on April 11
Spurs have had a disastrous season so far, but it’s still salvageable. If Mourinho can finish in the top-four and win the Carabao Cup, then it would be considered a successful campaign.
There’s a lot of work to be done between now and then though for that to happen.
At least Mourinho got a response at the weekend after their humiliating Europa League exit. For United, it’s all about finishing second now and a win at Tottenham could well put them in the driving seat to do that, as well as expel the ghosts of that 6-1 defeat.
April 17: Everton v Tottenham
In the business end of the season, the action comes thick and fast and it won’t get any easier for Tottenham.
A home clash with United is followed by a trip to Goodison Park.
With ground to make up, Mourinho’s men must get some points on the board over those two matches.
Everton, likewise, have a gap to close on Chelsea.
Everton have a gap to close on Chelsea and will need a result against Tottenham in April
Carlo Ancelotti spent in excess of £80million in the summer with the goal of achieving Champions League football for next season.
They’ve come this far – still in the picture after 28 games – so no doubt he’ll be bitterly disappointed if they can’t get over the line.
Everton’s home form has come into question this term, so Ancelotti will be eager for them to put things right in the biggest match at Goodison Park left in their season.
April 24: West Ham v Chelsea
Under Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea have proven to be a tough nut to crack.
In the 14 matches the German has taken charge of, no team has yet managed to defeat the Blues.
If West Ham want to play in Europe’s elite competition next year, they’ll have to find a way.
West Ham will desperately want to slow down Chelsea’s momentum when they meet
Chelsea currently occupy the last top-four spot and are threatening to pull clear of the pack, so the Hammers will be desperate to slow their momentum and give a boost to their own chances.
One thing Chelsea have struggled to do since Tuchel has come in, is score freely.
In contrast, West Ham have been finding the back of the net with regularity so if they can keep things tight at the back, they’ll be in with a chance of getting a result.
If Chelsea slip up here, it will be another twist in the race for the top-four.
May 1: Man United v Liverpool
Derbies don’t get much bigger than this.
By this point, either side could be in danger of missing out on the top four. Chances are one will definitely be.
And how the other would love to play a part in denying their rivals a spot in the Champions League.
Liverpool’s Old Trafford record hasn’t been great in recent years but they must go there in May
As if this fixture needed any more spice, their central roles in this tense battle for the top four will certainly add some.
United can take confidence from the 3-2 FA Cup win at Old Trafford back in January and the fact Liverpool’s recent record there has been substandard.
Jurgen Klopp has actually never won at Old Trafford in the six years he’s been in charge of Liverpool.
What a time it would be then to end that drought on May 1.
May 8: West Ham v Everton
By May 8, West Ham and Everton’s top-four chances will have become a lot clearer.
If they’re both still in the mix, what a match this will be.
At this stage of the season, one defeat could mark the end, so both will be desperate to get something from the game.
West Ham and Everton are the two underdogs in the race, but what a story it will be if they can manage to sneak into the top four.
They have both enjoyed great seasons, but it could come down to this one game to determine if they are to be unbelievable seasons.
Carlo Ancelotti and David Moyes’ top-four underdogs collide towards the end of the season
May 11: Man United v Leicester
Brendan Rodgers will still be licking his wounds from last season’s final-day defeat to United.
It meant Leicester cruelly missed out on a top-four spot, with United taking their place instead.
The Foxes, could, and should have sealed a place in the Champions Football that year, but a torrid run at the backend of the seasons saw them surrender their spot.
With a mightily tough ending to this campaign, Rodgers will be hoping they can avoid another dramatic collapse.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the stakes are just as high.
He has kept his job on the basis that United have been improving season on season since he took over the reins. If they were to fail to finish in the top-four this season, that argument would suddenly lose a lot of its credibility.
United clinched top-four spot at the King Power at Leicester’s expense on final day last season
May 15: Chelsea v Leicester
If Leicester’s place in the top four is still in question by this point then this will be a hugely crucial match.
The omens aren’t good for Leicester, either, as they haven’t beaten Chelsea in the Premier League since 2017.
As things stand, however, Leicester’s position in the top four is far more secure than Chelsea’s.
Thomas Tuchel, having been at PSG, and now working under Roman Abramovich, is used to the strains of demanding owners, and will be well aware of what comes next if he can’t meet targets.
Chelsea are also in the market for a striker and are in the race to sign Erling Haaland, but they’ll lose a lot of their attraction if they’re playing in the Europa League instead of the Champions League next season.
After all, Haaland will leave Dortmund if they end up doing the same and has the option of Manchester City.
Chelsea’s transfer plans and Thomas Tuchel’s future could be determined by where they finish
May 23: Leicester v Tottenham
By May 23, this will either be a dead rubber or a match that will have a huge say in the top-four race.
As end of season fixture run-ins go, Leicester couldn’t really have wished for worse matches.
Trips to United and Chelsea and then a home game with Tottenham, who can, on their day, be devastating on the counter attack when they’re on the road.
A huge boost for Leicester though will of course be the return of fans.
By then, with any luck, at least some supporters will be allowed in to cheer them on… they’ll be hoping to a win and spot in the Champions League.
Leicester and Tottenham’s final-day clash could prove to be vital in the race for the top four