We introduced the Opta Power Rankings a number of months ago. We use them daily to get a sense of where a team stands relative to opposition from all over the world.
Comparing two teams from different leagues can be fun and often illuminating but it’s possible to also use these rankings in other ways, such as discussing the difficulty of a team’s remaining fixtures. We are approaching squeaky bum time in the Premier League where a run of fixtures can make or break seasons and managers. A friendly set of matches could mean finishing 14th as opposed to bottom of the league. A nasty stretch of games can be the difference between fourth and mid-table.
The international break has given us a chance to catch a breather and prepare for one last push before we can start to think about the summer holidays.
To accommodate an awkwardly timed World Cup, club football has been more hectic than ever since the tournament finished. Premier League leaders Arsenal, for example, have played 18 games since 26 December when club football returned to our lives. That’s a game every 4.55 days.
Between 1 April (when they play Leeds) and 28 May (when they play Wolves), they have another 10 games – that’s a game every 5.7 days. However, they’re not in Europe and get off relatively lightly. Teams like Man City and Man Utd have to fit in European and FA Cup games to their schedule before they call it quits for the 2022-23 season. City and United have at least 16 games left this season, a game every 3.5 days on average.
But there are no days off in elite football and anyone can beat anyone, as we are so often told. So, looking at the fixture difficulty in the remaining games, based on the Opta Power Rankings, which teams should be nervous and which ones can start picking out their swimming togs for the summer holidays?
The Hardest Premier League Run-In
Brentford have the most difficult run-in according to our Opta Power Rankings. They play Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Brighton, Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur. They are one team shy (Arsenal) of a top-seven royal flush.
The currently sit eighth in the league and our Opta supercomputer predictions give them a 0.4% chance of finishing in fourth. Given the difficulty of their games, any idea of Brentford pushing for European qualification should be hushed. They’ve done enough to avoid any talk of relegation, but fans of the Bees can expect a few difficult days between now and the end of the season.
Nottingham Forest are the first team on our list in serious danger of relegation and we currently have them at more than a 50% chance of finishing inside the bottom three, despite the fact that they are currently two clear of the drop. They play Man Utd, Liverpool, Brighton and Arsenal among their 10-game finish to 2022-23. Steve Cooper is already feeling the heat at Forest and there will be little sign of it cooling off before the end of the season.
Graham Potter hasn’t had the easiest time since becoming Chelsea manager. He’s managed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League quarter-final, but don’t expect too many easy games to end the season domestically. They count Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Newcastle amongst their most difficult games before they can draw the curtain on a particularly difficult and dramatic season at Stamford Bridge.
The Easiest Premier League Run-In
Poor Patrick Viera. After a tough run of games, the former French midfielder was dismissed before the international break and replaced by the oldest manager in Premier League history, Roy Hodgson. Aside from the 4-1 loss to Arsenal, Palace lost 1-0 to both Man City and rivals Brighton and drew with Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester United since football has returned after the World Cup.
They have the easiest run-in based on the average Opta Power Ranking of their opposition. The highest-ranked team they play are Spurs and the lowest are Bournemouth. The only real problem for Palace is that they are playing teams in precarious positions, just like themselves.
Viera ran the gauntlet and paid for it with his job. Hodgson has come in and just needs to steady the ship and get some decent results against fellow strugglers to make it look like he is a miracle-worker – something he failed miserably to do last season at Watford.
Every team from Palace in 12th, on 27 points, down are in the crosshairs of relegation. Four points separate them and basement boys, Southampton, on 23 points. Eight of Palace’s last 10 games are against direct relegation candidates.
The quality of Palace’s opposition in the coming weeks might not be great but the desperation will be absolute.
The Title Race
Arsenal and Man City’s biggest game is against each other at the end of April. They have the 11th and 12th easiest set of fixtures to finish the league. The reason they lie close to each other in the fixture difficulty table is mainly because of the overlap in their games – they both play West Ham, Liverpool, Southampton, Brighton, Leeds and Chelsea and then of course that potential title-decider at the end of April at the Etihad.
If we dig a little deeper, City have Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea at home while Mikel Arteta’s side have to travel to play City, Liverpool and Newcastle as well as welcoming Brighton and Chelsea to the Emirates.
Manchester United are still on for a treble after winning the Carabao Cup against Newcastle United. They also have the UEFA Europa League quarter-final against LaLiga relegation contenders Sevilla and an FA Cup semi-final against Brighton on the horizon.
There were some die-hard United fans holding out for a late and unlikely title push but that is out of the question now after getting steamrolled 7-0 by Liverpool at Anfield in early March. The Opta supercomputer says that they do have a 1.2% chance of catching City in second, even if they are 11 points behind Pep Guardiola’s side.
They have the third easiest run of games to finish the season. They don’t have either of Arsenal or City in their last 12 games of the season but do play against Tottenham, Newcastle and Brighton. If it wasn’t for a sluggish start to life under Erik ten Hag, then it feels like we may possibly have been talking about a United title challenge.
Elsewhere Across Europe
Let’s just assume that LaLiga is settled. Barcelona will lift the title after beating their Clasico rivals, Real Madrid, in their most recent LaLiga game to move 12 points clear at the top of the league. The question now is whether Atlético Madrid can catch Real and finish second. Diego Simeone’s side have the easiest remaining fixtures according to our Opta Power Rankings.
Real Sociedad and Real Betis are doing battle for the final Champions League place with three points separating them. Villarreal are also hanging around with distant hopes of an assault on the top four, but they have the hardest stretch of games to finish the season.
In the most surprising news of the international break, Julian Naglesmann was sacked by Bayern Munich and replaced by Thomas Tuchel. Forget that Nagelsmann has Bayern in the Champions League quarter-final after beating Paris Saint-Germain and is only a point off Borussia Dortmund at the top of the table heading into this weekend’s Klassiker. They have the second easiest stretch of games to finish the season. RB Leipzig, who are eight points back, might fancy a run at the league leaders.
Parity and Bundesliga don’t normally get put into the same sentence but this season we might have a surprise winner depending on how quickly Tuchel can implement his ideas at the Allianz Arena. Union Berlin have lost ground in a potential title race, but they are only four points behind Bayern and have the third-easiest run-in.
The Bundesliga might be the most open of all the top five European leagues.
The Serie A title race is a foregone conclusion, with Napoli now 19 points clear with only 11 games remaining. It’ll be their first Italian top-flight title since 1990 and they’ve done it in style.
Of the teams behind them hoping to qualify for the Champions League, it’s good news for Milan. They are currently two points behind Internazionale in third and four points behind second-place Lazio, but they have the easiest run-in based on the strength of their remaining opponents in the Opta Power Rankings.
Compare Milan’s average opponent ranking of 111.6 to Inter’s 78 and it feels like that two Milan clubs could be swapping places in the table sooner rather than later. Inter finish their season having to play three of the current top four sides in their last four games: Roma away, Napoli away and Atalanta at home to finish the 2022-23 campaign.
Atalanta are currently sixth, but their more favourable run-in (the fourth easiest) could end up being the difference between Europa League football and Champions League football in 2023-24.
The only real question in Ligue 1 is how bad can it get for Paris Saint-Germain? They are seven points ahead of Marseille and have the easiest run-in but Marseille have it quite handy themselves. Christophe Galtier is a lame duck in Paris and the club have been eliminated from the Champions League.
Surely, they can’t let a seven-point lead slip… can they?
Benfica have been tearing it up in the Champions League and domestically this season. They are 10 points clear at the top of the Primeira Liga but both Porto and SC Braga have the easiest run-ins and sit 10 and 12 points behind the leaders respectively.
Roger Schmidt’s side have a tie against Inter Milan in the quarter-final of the Champions League that they will feel they can win. If they take their eye off the ball in the league, a decent run of results by either of the teams below them could inject some intrigue into a league that Benfica look to already have in the bag.