With two months to go, the top-four race is hotting up and two clear frontrunners have emerged after another weekend of striking developments in the Premier League.
Behind the leading triumvirate of Liverpool, Manchester City and Leicester, arguably six teams are still in the running for the Champions League spots and particularly if fifth place is in play given Manchester City’s European ban, appeal pending.
Chelsea, who have held fourth-spot since late November, thrashed Everton 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in one of their performances of the season, and in a week where they beat soon-to-be Premier League champions Liverpool in the FA Cup.
Chelsea produced one of their performances of the season against Everton on Sunday
Anthony Martial celebrates his goal in Manchester United’s win against rivals Manchester City
Manchester United, who have leapt up to fifth after three wins in four games, played superbly as they outfought neighbours Manchester City in the derby and were deserving of all three points at Old Trafford on Sunday, completing a glorious double over Pep Guardiola’s side.
For the rest of the chasing pack, wins for Arsenal and Sheffield United kept them in the hunt while draws for Wolves and Tottenham against Brighton and Burnley respectively were hiccups neither team can afford at this stage of the season.
However, Chelsea and United appear to the clear frontrunners, particularly given two imperious Sunday scorelines.
Yet who has the edge with nine games to go, both in terms of squad strength and the run-in? Sportsmail takes a look at all the factors at play as the Blues and Red Devils tussle for a spot at the top table next season.
Since losing to Manchester City at the end of November, Chelsea have been the hallmark of inconsistency in the Premier League.
CHELSEA AND MAN UNITED IN THE LAST MONTH
- Feb 17: L vs Man Utd, 2-0 (PL)
- Feb 22: W vs Tottenham, 2-1 (PL)
- Feb 25: L vs Bayern Munich, 3-0 (CL)
- Feb 29: D vs Bournemouth, 2-2 (PL)
- Mar 3: W vs Liverpool, 2-0 (FAC)
- Mar 8: W vs Everton, 4-0 (PL)
- Feb 17: W vs Chelsea, 2-0 (PL)
- Feb 20: D vs Club Brugge, 1-1 (EL)
- Feb 23: W vs Watford, 3-0 (PL)
- Feb 27: W vs Club Brugge, 5-0 (EL)
- Mar 1: D vs Everton, 1-1 (PL)
- Mar 5: W vs Derby, 3-0 (FAC)
- Mar 8: W vs Man City, 2-0 (PL)
Eye-catching results such as victories away at Arsenal and at home to Tottenham have been matched with hammer blows, with defeats against teams such as Newcastle, Southampton and Bournemouth.
In the last month in particular, Frank Lampard’s side followed up a pair of 2-2 stalemates against Arsenal and Chelsea with a cruel 2-0 defeat at home to United, effectively keeping their opponents in the race.
The win against Jose Mourinho’s Spurs, which saw a recall and a goal for Olivier Giroud, was much-needed but was followed by a footballing lesson against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and a disjointed performance at Bournemouth.
The last week could be the turning point though. The Blues were impressive against both Merseyside clubs at the Bridge and the pair of games saw the unveiling of a teenage star in Billy Gilmour.
Olivier Giroud has taken his chance up front for Chelsea – he scored against Everton on Sunday
For United, their form has picked up since the winter break in the middle of February and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are actually unbeaten in their last 10 games in all competitions, dating back to January 22 and a home defeat against Burnley.
That win against Chelsea, fortuitous as it may have been with VAR and luck on their side, has triggered an impressive run of results which culminated with the derby win on Sunday.
The 1-1 draw at Everton, riddled by two goalkeeping mistakes, has been the only main hiccup as the Red Devils have progressed comfortably into the latter stages of both the Europa League and FA Cup.
Clearly buoyed by the signing of Bruno Fernandes in the centre of the park and thriving with Odion Ighalo taking some weight off Anthony Martial’s workload, United put in a potentially season-defining performance on Sunday against their fierce rivals.
Odion Ighalo has scored three goals in his last two starts for Manchester United
People simply cannot stop talking about Billy Gilmour.
The 18-year-old, given his chance in midfield due to Jorginho’s suspension and Mateo Kovacic’s injury against Liverpool, was man-of-the-match twice in the same week, and has been the equivalent of a star acquisition in the latter stages of the season.
His game management, maturity, forward-thinking outlook in possession and creativity has made the young Scot a fan favourite already and he will now be integral to Chelsea’s hopes this season.
The emergence of 18-year-old Billy Gilmour has been a revelation in the last two matches
Olivier Giroud, a man who openly admits he did everything he could to leave the club in January, has also been a revelation since being handed his chance by Lampard.
He scored against Tottenham on February 22, and again at the weekend. A player whose knack for scoring regularly season-after-season shouldn’t be overlooked, the Frenchman could well usurp Tammy Abraham as option number one up front when he returns to full fitness.
Supporting acts for the Blues in recent weeks include Willian, who continues to flourish despite uncertainty surrounding his long-term future at the club, and Marcos Alonso, who has popped up with some important goals in recent weeks.
At Old Trafford, it is a similar story of the protagonist being a new introduction in the centre of the park.
The most drawn-out transfer of the season, Bruno Fernandes’ eventual arrival in Manchester has been worth the wait. The Portuguese has inspired not just his team-mates on the pitch, but has seemingly reinvigorated the Old Trafford fanbase.
With bundles of energy and infectious enthusiasm, as well as undeniable skill and imagination in the final third, the former Sporting Lisbon captain is already a linchpin, and it’s no secret that he has raised the performance level of those around him, such as Fred, Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.
Bruno Fernandes has hit the ground running since his January move from Sporting Lisbon
Ahead of him, Marcus Rashford’s injury has placed the onus on Anthony Martial to produce the goods up top. And so far, so good.
The French striker has scored three goals in his last four Premier League appearances and alongside his strike-rate, his work-rate has undoubtedly increased alongside the responsibility he now shoulders.
He’s not alone up top though. Much ridiculed, Odion Ighalo’s loan signing has worked thus far, with the Nigerian scoring in both the Europa League and FA Cup as United fight for success on three fronts.
Elsewhere, the presence of captain Harry Maguire continues to be of paramount importance while both Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams have not buckled at the back as of yet.
Both relatively new to the managerial helm, Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have had their critics this season but both appear to be coming into their own now.
Patchy results in the first-half of the season saw the experience and competency of both questioned, yet the post-winter break upturn has solidified the fanbase entering the most crucial part of the season.
Frank Lampard has won fans by showing faith in youth for the majority of this season
A division of resources is something that Solskjaer has executed perfectly in recent weeks, with the constant but not drastic rotation for cup competitions working perfectly so far.
Lampard, similarly, has been rewarded again for his trust and man-management of youth – Gilmour’s emergence is indicative of that, as is the dropping and subsequent recall of Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Both may not be out the exit-door come the summer should Champions League football not be attained. But it’d certainly help their ambitions and job security in the long-term.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has led his team to an unbeaten run of 10 games in all competitions
Nine Premier League matches to go and on balance, the run-in is favourable towards United.
Chelsea have trips to Anfield, Bramall Lane and Selhurst Park to navigate, as well as the hosting of Manchester City and then Wolves, in what could be a humdinger on the final day of the season.
United, meanwhile, have a trip to out-of-form Tottenham to contend with on Sunday, but then would fancy their chances of maximum points in all their remaining games, with their final day trip to Leicester their toughest match on the horizon.
However, with three points currently the gap, could other competitions come in to play? While both have FA Cup quarter-finals before March’s international break, Chelsea’s aspirations in Europe is somewhat closer to its conclusion than United’s.
The first-leg 3-0 loss to Bayern means the Blues will need something of a miracle during next week’s trip to the Allianz Arena, while United are heavy favourites in their Europa League last-16 tie against Austrian side LASK.
And yet, the extra continental games in April may not affect Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, should he continue to prove his adeptness in squad rotation.
A fascinating conclusion to the season beckons and despite the conglomeration of teams in the hunt, Chelsea and Manchester United are ahead of the chasing pack. Given their run-in, United have the marginal edge – but is that enough to overcome the current three-point deficit?