Ten weeks into the English Premier League season, the race for Champions League qualification feels like a foregone conclusion.
Liverpool FC preserved a six-point lead atop the table thanks to a 2-1 comeback win over Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, and Manchester City's 3-0 win against Aston Villa the previous day ensured the title-holders kept pace with the league leaders. Leicester City and Chelsea are even on points (20) in third and fourth place, respectively, with each having a four-point lead over fifth-place Arsenal, a seven-point lead over seventh-place Manchester United and an eight-point lead over 11th-place Tottenham.
Given the performances of the latter three clubs, those leads seem a bit generous.
Arsenal drew London rivals Crystal Palace at the Emirates on Sunday after leading 2-0 at halftime. The Gunners now have dropped points against winless Watford (draw) and newly promoted Sheffield United in their last six Premier League matches, and they nearly did the same against Aston Villa. They're also winless against the big six this season, and that has them currently on the outside looking in at a Champions League spot.
Manchester United should feel best after winning Sunday, dispatching Norwich City with a comprehensive 3-1 victory. It was the Red Devils' first league win away from Old Trafford since Feb. 9, but the slump-buster might be too little, too late for United. Away trips to Leicester, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City remain on the schedule, and the seemingly inevitable departure of Paul Pogba won't help matters, either.
And then there's Tottenham. Spurs' performance in Sunday's loss to Liverpool might have been one of its best of the season. That says more about Tottenham's season than it does about its performance against the league leaders, though. Spurs have lost to Newcastle United, drawn Watford, and dropped points from winning positions against Arsenal, Leicester and now Liverpool. They still haven't won away from their immaculate new stadium all season. Mauricio Pochettino's squads historically round into form in November, but even a light schedule next month shouldn't encourage Tottenham considering its previous form.
The title race always was going to be a two-horse race. Liverpool and City are heads and shoulders above the rest of the Premier League. Now, the remainder of the top four looks a cut above the rest, too.
Chelsea has impressed under first-year manager Frank Lampard in the aftermath of Eden Hazard's departure, with Christian Pulisic's hat trick in Saturday's 4-2 win over Burnley just the latest example of the Blues' youth revolution. Leicester, meanwhile, has a young core of its own, rivaling the Foxes' shock title winners from four seasons ago. A 9-0 win over struggling Southampton on Friday was a statement of intent toward the rest of the league, and Leicester's absence from European competition this season ensures manager Brendan Rodgers will be able to trot out his best lineups week after week.
It's not all bad news for the big-six clubs nipping at Chelsea and Leicester's heels. Both Chelsea and Leicester are yet to play against Liverpool or Man City. Tottenham arguably has played its three hardest fixtures already, with trips to the Etihad, the Emirates and Anfield all now out of the way. Arsenal has gone to Anfield, too, and Man United already has beaten Leicester and Chelsea.
Those glimmers of hope don't leave for much room for error, however, and all three of Arsenal, United and Tottenham have uphill climbs to qualify for the Europa League -- let alone finish in a top-four spot. As a result, the race to see who finishes behind Liverpool and Man City isn't shaping up to be much of one at all.