The Premier League is drawing to a close – and although this season has, much to the dismay of the neutrals, been less about the drama and uncertainty at the very top end of the table unlike last campaign, it has had its clutch moments of its own as the ensemble of superstar managers have all made a mark – some indelible, while others not so much, at various stages in the last seven months.
As the final international break of 2016/17 is on the horizon, it’s time to take one deep breath and look at who, in the top seven clubs in the league, can make a difference that could push their sides higher than where they currently are – in what promises to be an intriguing run-in to the end of the season.
1. Chelsea – N’Golo Kante
If there’s anyone at Chelsea, who’s more familiar with a title run-in than any other, it has got to be N’Golo Kante who is the most recent title winner in that squad, when he did it with Leicester City 2015-16 playing an integral role in the middle of the park.
He has played a similarly vital role for the Blues under Antonio Conte, forming one half of a midfield two with an unparalleled resilience and work ethic, reproducing the image of the Italian. Not to mention, his positional awareness aiding the defensive unit, has made a difference in big games and also is one of the reasons why Chelsea have been so dominant at Stamford Bridge winning 12 of their 14 matches at home.
Chelsea have rewarded themselves with a ten point cushion at the summit, a product of their relentless ability to notch up win after win, despite not always being at their flamboyant best. Requiring 26 points from an available 33, a figure that could reduce further if other results fell in their favor, it’s important that the French midfielder is at his best to make sure they are at their strongest in the most important period of the campaign: the run-in.
2. Tottenham Hotspur – Dele Alli
For Tottenham, finishing second means finishing above arch rivals Arsenal, a feat that represents massive success and what could be a spark that can stoke a power shift in North London. Pochettino has done incredibly well in the league with Spurs being one of the best balanced sides in the league helped by a fantastic record at White Hart Lane, in the final season at their fabled home.
But Spurs have been potentially dealt with a blow in the form of injury to their main man Harry Kane, who has had another prolific campaign for his boyhood club. His goals and presence up front has been incredibly vital to Spurs and a fear factor that generated will certainly be missed in his six week absence as a return is scheduled tentatively prior to the FA cup semi-final against Chelsea.
White Hart Lane may not be as daunting without their talisman but whether that will seriously derail the hopes of achieving their highest ever finish in the league, is in the hands of midfielder Dele Alli. Alli has emerged as one of the best young players in Europe, let alone England, and if he could add to his already impressive tally of 16 (goals plus assists, only behind Timo Werner in goals among U21 players in Europe’s top five leagues) in the forthcoming fixtures, then Spurs need not worry too much about their final position in the league.
3. Manchester City – Leroy Sane
Having exited the Champions League in disappointing fashion, what Man City need to do to salvage something out of a largely underwhelming season is finish as high as possible in the league i.e second. At one point, Pep Guardiola’s side looked to pose the strongest challenge for the title but that has faded in December and January, owing to an imbalanced squad with unavoidable gaps at the back.
The Spaniard will no doubt break the bank in the summer to bring in top class players to replace an ageing squad but with the attacking talent they can call upon, it is not unreasonable to suggest the Sky Blues can still finish second in the league on top of a strong FA Cup run they are on, with a semifinal clash against Arsenal in April to be played at Wembley. Among those plethora of creative players, the one that could prove to be that key difference between now and end of the season, especially in the games against fellow top six sides, is Leroy Sane.
At 21, Sane has been a breath of fresh air on the left flank and at times the only one at Man City this season. With 3 goals and a solitary assist from 10 starts, the German international will be expected to improve his goal return, based on current form.
Alongside Raheem Sterling, his injection of pace and directness has enabled City cover their deficiencies at the back, something they will need to continue doing in their final 11 games if they were to improve on their current position in the league.
4. Liverpool – Adam Lallana
If at the start of the season, Liverpool fans were offered fourth place finish – a return to the Champions League under Jurgen Klopp’s first full season with the club, the majority of Reds would have grabbed it with both arms. But the start that Liverpool made to the campaign, very reminiscent of the 2013/14 campaign under Brendan Rodgers while some would say even better, scoring loads of goals playing a brand of football that fitted in with the traditions of the club.
But fixture congestion and injury to key players – Coutinho in particular, have massively dented what once looked like a proper title challenge and at one point in 2017, Liverpool found themselves outside top four, out of all cup competitions and devoid of any hope that things would improve any more. But thanks to their spectacular run of form against fellow top six sides which fueled another mini-resurgence, Jurgen Klopp is now facing a run-in with teams they should comfortably beat on paper and at least sustain their position, if not climb any further up.
With Coutinho unable to replicate his pre-December form yet and Firmino inconsistent in front of goal, 27-year old Adam Lallana has taken on them mantle alongside Sadio Mane in putting in 9/10 displays week in week out, with Lallana in particular, proving to be very crucial in the forthcoming games.
With 7 goals and 7 assists, Lallana is enjoying his most productive campaign for Liverpool and if there is one player who epitomizes the counter pressing, hyper-active football, it’s the England International. Liverpool need to show consistency at the moment with their results and more importantly they need to start winning games when they are not playing as well as they could do more often than not, which is why someone as tenacious as Lallana will be key in the run-in and could potentially be that difference between now and May, in terms of where they end up in the league table.
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In Episode II, we will look at who, in the teams out of top four could help make one final push in the run-in that would see them break into one of the Champions League places.