Premier League's race for Champions League heats up as Man City cool off
On Feb. 1, the day before his side's visit to Sunderland, Manuel Pellegrini announced he was leaving Manchester City at the end of the season.
At the time, it seemed likely that the Chilean would leave the club with a second Premier League medal. After Man City's 1-0 victory at the Stadium of Light, they were the title favourites and sat in second place, just three points behind Leicester.
Now there's real danger Man City will not qualify for the Champions League after an extraordinary decline the past two months. Their form has been patchy throughout the season, and they have failed to record consecutive league victories since October. Further, they've slumped in recent weeks and won just one of their past six league games. With West Ham playing well and Manchester United recovering from a disastrous run of form to string together some good results, the race for fourth place is on, largely due to Man City's incompetence.
Pellegrini doesn't deserve all the blame. Although it's essentially a manager's job to keep his squad focused and committed, there has long been a feeling that Man City are liable to switch off, given half an opportunity.
Too many star players are given freedom to stroll around and do as they please. Yaya Toure is the most notable, but David Silva and Sergio Aguero don't set particularly good examples with their lax attitude toward regaining possession, even if they're arguably the best in the Premier League at their jobs.
Nevertheless, the Champions League slot is still Man City's to lose, for various reasons. First, they hold a one-point advantage over West Ham and Man United and have a goal differential advantage over both.
Plus, their remaining fixtures are relatively gentle, with only one game against a top-six side: a home meeting with Arsenal. This point is particularly crucial for Man City because they are the archetypal flat-track bullies in that they thrash weaker sides but struggle massively against sides around them in the table.
On a points-per-game basis -- including Liverpool rather than Stoke or Southampton to account for Liverpool's games in hand -- Man City have collected just three points this season against the top seven, which is tied with relegation-bound Aston Villa for worst in the division. It's a truly disgraceful record that begs serious questions about Pellegrini's tactical ability.
The fact that Man City have absolutely no problem against teams in the middle and bottom third of the table -- in both respects, they have the highest points-per-game record in the league -- means that, should they continue that pattern until the end of the campaign, they should seal a top-four position without too many problems.
If Man City continue to stutter, however, it will come down to a fight between West Ham and Man United, who are currently fifth and sixth, respectively, and locked together on 50 points. Not only do the clubs meet for a rearranged FA Cup quarterfinal, but they'll also clash in the final week of the league season in the final game at Upton Park.
The confusing thing about both clubs is they're effectively the complete opposite of Man City. Man United (2.00 points per game) and West Ham (1.89) are the two best sides in the Premier League against top-seven clubs. The Hammers, in particular, have excelled this season in the theoretically trickiest games; they won at Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool and collected a point at Man United.
By contrast, both teams struggle massively against poor opposition. Against the bottom seven, Man United are collecting just 1.50 PPG, 13th in the league, while West Ham claims just 1.54 PPG, the 11th mark.
This makes for a confusing situation because both sides have tricky matches to come. They play one another, and both face leaders Leicester, while Man United have a trip to Tottenham and West Ham face Arsenal. In theory, they're difficult games, but they're the type in which they have both thrived this season.
The battle for fourth is not entirely a three-horse race. Arsenal are only three points ahead of Man City, while Liverpool would be three points behind Man United and West Ham if they win their game in hand. Nevertheless, an Arsenal collapse or a Liverpool charge remains unlikely, so it's basically one from three. It would be somehow typical of this incredibly unpredictable Premier League season if West Ham were to upset the Manchester sides for the final Champions League slot. Should it happen, it could be a truly historic, game-changing achievement.
The Hammers are determined to sign a genuine superstar this summer to boost ticket sales for their first season at the Olympic Stadium, and the lure of Champions League football would be the best way to bring in top-class talent. The most eye-catching name linked has been Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though manager Slaven Bilic has suggested that remains unlikely.
West Ham have grand ambitions for their new era and their new logo, which features the word "London" at the bottom, which signals the club's intention to position itself as the "true" capital city team. Although breaking into the top four is extremely difficult, this is the squad's best chance to make that leap. Once there, revenue from the Champions League will make it easier to remain.
Clearly, United and City remain bigger clubs, but the possibility of West Ham playing in a comparable stadium and in a better European competition means they could become permanent rivals to the Manchester clubs. Therefore, this season's race for the final Champions League place is even more important than usual.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.