Soccer

Premier League takeaways: Why Chelsea, Leicester now top-four locks

Premier League takeaways: Why Chelsea, Leicester now top-four locks

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.

[RELATED: How Pulisic is playing himself into bigger role at Chelsea]

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.

Watch Harry Maguire wrongly avoid red card, seal Manchester United win

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Premier League

Watch Harry Maguire wrongly avoid red card, seal Manchester United win

Harry Maguire shouldn't have been on the pitch to score Monday, but the Manchester United defender made the race for UEFA Champions League qualification much more interesting regardless. 

Maguire's 66th-minute header, his first Premier League goal for Manchester United, controversially doubled the Red Devils' lead in a 2-0 win over fourth-place Chelsea. 

But the 26-year-old should have been sent off 45 minutes prior. 

Maguire kicked out at Michy Batshuayi in the 21st minute after a clearance. It looked remarkably similar to a kick that got Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min sent off against Chelsea last month, but a VAR check ruled Maguire's kick wasn't violent conduct constituting a red card. 

VAR made Chelsea supporters even angrier about 10 minutes prior to Maguire's header. Kurt Zouma equalized for Chelsea on a set piece, but the video assistant overturned the goal after determining César Azpilicueta fouled United's Brandon Williams. Azpilicueta appeared to be pushed into Williams, but Zouma's equalizer was wiped away regardless. 

Olivier Giroud seemingly pulled one back for Chelsea in the 77th minute, but VAR once again disallowed a Chelsea goal. This time, the decision was correct. 

United's win adds plenty of intrigue to a suddenly competitive race for Champions League places. Second-place Manchester City's two-year ban from European competition, if upheld, would allow the Premier League's fifth-place team to qualify for the Champions League and reap the ensuing financial rewards. 

[RELATED: Check out more Premier League coverage from Sky Sports]

Only seven points separate Chelsea and 11th-place Burnley, and seventh-place Manchester United only are three back of Chelsea. The Red Devils are just two points back of Spurs in fifth place, too.

They can thank Maguire for that, even if he shouldn't been in a position to help them. 

Chelsea-Manchester United live stream: How to watch EPL game online, on TV

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AP

Chelsea-Manchester United live stream: How to watch EPL game online, on TV

The pressure is on Chelsea (12-5-8; 41 points).

The fourth-place Blues are only a point ahead of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur (and former manager José Mourinho) in the race for UEFA Champions League qualification. Chelsea are winless in their last three matches, and dropped points Monday against Manchester United (9-8-8; 35 points) at Stamford Bridge would set up a scintillating showdown between the London rivals next Saturday.

A win would rob Mourinho of his desired drama, however, and the Blues would have some much-needed separation between them and their closest rivals. 

Manchester City's Champions League ban could ultimately make it a moot point, but United now have an opportunity thanks to their cross-town rivals. Manchester United are five points back of Spurs (and six back of Chelsea), so an away win would go a long way towards ensuring a legitimate race for the final Champions League spot down the stretch. United haven't won a Premier League match away from home this decade (they beat Burnley 2-0 at Turf Moor on Dec. 28, 2019), and the Red Devils will need to find their form fast. 

[RELATED: Check out more Premier League coverage from Sky Sports

Here's how to watch Monday's Chelsea-Manchester United match online and on TV. 

When: Monday, Feb. 17 at 3:00 p.m. ET/12:00 p.m. PT
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports