The Premier League title race is really capturing the imagination of neutrals, but the battle for Champions League qualification is beginning to heat up as well.


We have entered the home straight of the 2023-24 Premier League season, the period that’ll ultimately decide everything (in English top-flight terms).

For much of the campaign, we at Opta Analyst have paid particular attention to the title race – which seems to get more gripping by the week – and the relegation battle. But results in March have caused us to turn our attention to the other tussle that should capture the imagination over the final weeks of the season: the race for Champions League football between Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester United.

The waters are muddied somewhat by the fact we aren’t going to know for a while yet exactly how many clubs will qualify for the Champions League from the Premier League. The top four are obviously guaranteed a slot each, but fifth place may also end up providing an automatic route into the competition, which will be revamped with a new 36-team format next term.

Essentially, four extra Champions League spots are up for grabs across Europe. Two will be given to the associations with the best collective performance in European competition in 2023-24, with this determined by the UEFA coefficients points system that rewards each country for their clubs progressing through the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.

Based on Opta supercomputer predictions for the remainder of those competitions this season, the most recent projections as of last Friday have England with a 70.6% chance of being one of the two top-performing nations across UEFA competitions in 2023-24; so, there is a very strong probability that fifth place in the Premier League will qualify for next season’s Champions League.

But who’s most likely to benefit? Check back here over the next few weeks to see how the three-way battle evolves.

March 18 2024

If Fifth Is a Champions League Spot

It was a pretty good weekend all round for Manchester United. Their incredible 4-3 extra-time FA Cup quarter-final win over Liverpool was a thrill ride and the kind of result that can really help build momentum, which is exactly what you want heading into the final two months of the season when playing catch-up.

What made the weekend even better for Erik ten Hag’s men was the fact neither Spurs nor Villa could earn wins in the Premier League.

Tottenham suffered a surprise 3-0 defeat away to Fulham on Saturday, with that the first time in 39 Premier League matches that Spurs have failed to score.

Villa, meanwhile, could only take a 1-1 draw away from the London Stadium on Sunday – though they were arguably lucky to get a point, with West Ham having two goals disallowed after VAR checks.

As such, both teams have seen slight decreases to their chances of finishing in the top five, but it’s hardly panic stations yet given they’re both still close to 90%.

Villa’s probability of finishing in the top five is 89.8%, while Spurs’ is only slightly lower at 88.7%. Both are down from a week ago, though the differences are marginal.

Premier League top five chances
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Spurs have seen a decrease of 2.9 percentage points; Villa’s is down by 0.2.

Therefore, while United’s situation has obviously improved even without playing a Premier League match, an increase in their top-five chances of 2.9% isn’t anything to get too excited about yet, particularly given Spurs are still six points clear of them.

Nevertheless, things could change rapidly; it’ll only take one more Spurs defeat for the supercomputer to start getting really giddy.

If Fifth Isn’t a Champions League Spot

This is looking even less likely than last week because of results in Europe since, but the situation isn’t confirmed so we should still consider all eventualities.

Spurs’ defeat had a pretty sizeable impact on their top-four probability, as the graph below shows, and that’s also given Villa a major boost.

Premier League top four chances

Ange Postecoglou’s side were deemed favourites for fourth by a reasonable margin last week, but their probability has dipped from 55.1% to 48.4%; Villa have gone from 42.2% to 47.5%.

United’s hopes for fourth have also improved somewhat (+1.2 percentage points), though at 3.5% they are still huge outsiders.

It’s going to take a big few weeks for the Red Devils to get into genuine contention for fourth, though that shouldn’t be necessary given how the English clubs are doing in Europe.

United need that to continue.


March 11 2024

If Fifth Is a Champions League Spot

It’s worth pointing out at this point that Spurs (27) have actually played a game fewer than United and Villa (28). There’s two ways of looking at that: they have a game in hand and therefore more chances to win three points, or they’ve got more opportunities to drop points.

The optimists will of course start counting an extra three points already because, right now, if they were to win their game in hand, then Spurs would move up to fourth place and sit a point ahead of Villa.

While that may not be how things always turn out in football, the Opta supercomputer does now consider Spurs as the team most likely to finish in the top five – well, fourth or fifth. It’s probably fair to rule out third and beyond.

Spurs’ brilliant 4-0 win away to Villa on Sunday has clearly played a role in that, with the two teams swapping places in the supercomputer’s projections following that result.

Premier League top five finish probability
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

It considers Ange Postecoglou’s side to now have a 91.6% chance of finishing fifth or fourth; Villa might only be marginally behind them (90.0%), but Tottenham do now have the edge in this particular scenario, with Sunday’s victory not only a psychological boost but a real statement considering how emphatic it was.

Manchester United still harbour hope of returning to the Champions League again next season, and that will surely be their aim if Erik ten Hag thinks he can keep his job for 2024-25 – but the outlook isn’t great.

For the time being, the points gap between them and Spurs in fifth is six. That’s not quite unassailable, but if Tottenham were to win their game in hand, then the deficit to fifth (Villa) would be eight points; considering how erratic United have been this season, it’s difficult to see why they’d be confident of overturning such a lead.

Ten Hag’s side have already lost 11 times in the league this term, putting them just one away from equalling their worst record in a single Premier League season (12 in 2019-20 and 2013-14). As such, the Opta supercomputer rates their chances of a top-five finish at just 12.7%.

In fairness, it’s been worse than that for much of the campaign and they might fancy their chances when they get a couple of key players back from injury. But either way, it’ll take an impressive turnaround for United to usurp either Spurs or Villa.

If Fifth Isn’t a Champions League Spot

As stated before, this scenario is less likely because English clubs are still projected to do well in each of the three UEFA competitions. However, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility some of Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Villa and West Ham suffer surprise eliminations in their respective competitions.

The only thing that’s guaranteed is fourth place in the Premier League will qualify for the Champions League, so removing all doubt from the situation should be the priority.

Manchester United fans needn’t expend much energy thinking about that as a possibility for them, though. With eight points to make up already on Villa alone, top four looks pretty much out of reach.

Premier League top four finish probability
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

The Opta supercomputer’s projections reflect this as well, giving them just a 2.3% likelihood of finishing ahead of both Spurs and Villa; that’s 230 out of 10,000 season simulations by the model, or in other words, incredibly improbable.

But that won’t be much of a surprise to anyone. The battle here is between Spurs and Villa, and Sunday’s 4-0 win for Postecoglou’s men provided a seismic shift in their respective chances of getting fourth.

Before the weekend, Villa were in the driver’s seat and given a 65.3% probability of finishing in the top four, whereas Spurs were at 32.1%; now, though, Spurs end the campaign fourth in 55.1% of the 10,000 season simulations and Villa are down to 42.2%.

As the probability race graph above highlights, it’s been a bit of a ding-dong battle between Spurs and Villa for a little while now, so it’s certainly a possibility that both continue to be somewhat inconsistent and swap places again.

We also have to consider who each team still has to play…

The Run-In

We can get an idea of the difficulty of each team’s final matches this season by looking at the average rating of their respective opponents in the Opta Power Rankings, a global ranking system that assigns an ability score to 13,000 domestic football teams across the world on a scale between zero and 100, where zero would be attributed to the worst-ranked team and 100 to the best (which is currently Manchester City).

Of the three teams legitimately in the running for the top five at the moment, Villa have the toughest run-in; the average rating of the teams they face between now and mid-May in the Premier League is 89.7, which is second only to Brighton (89.9) in the whole top flight.

Villa still have to face Man City and Arsenal away from home, and they play host to Liverpool in their penultimate match of the season when the Reds could still be battling desperately for the title.

Things aren’t much easier for Spurs on the home straight, though. The average rating of their 10 opponents on the graphic below is 87.8, but it doesn’t include their game in hand against Chelsea (current rating: 88.7) because that still doesn’t have a date after their February encounter had to be rearranged due to the Blues reaching the EFL Cup final.

Premier League fixture difficulty season run-in

Like Villa, Spurs also still have to face all of the top three and they are currently scheduled to be back-to-back. The only saving grace for Tottenham is two of those games (City and Arsenal) will be at home. There’s also the possibility that the derby with Chelsea gets thrown into that sequence of games as well, making a particularly grim run of matches.

According to the Opta Power Rankings, United have the easiest run-in of these three clubs. Both of their games against members of the leading pack (Liverpool and Arsenal) will be at Old Trafford, where they also have to face Sheffield United, Newcastle and Burnley.

Their remaining away games – against Brentford, Chelsea, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and Brighton – are also, arguably, all matches they will fancy their chances of getting results in.

So, while Spurs and Villa hold a considerable advantage right now, there could yet be many twists in the tale; the title race looks set to thrill neutrals over the coming months, but this scrap has huge potential as well.

Strap yourselves in.


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