And down the stretch they come...
For those residing outside of the US, I don't know if the traditional horse racing broadcast call as the horses enter the final turn is universal, but I'll assume that it is pretty clear how this might be relevant to the Premier League as teams enter the final two months of the season. With fantasy rosters heavily stacked toward the big six and all six of those clubs still participating at the quarter final stages of their respective European competitions, examining each club's stretch run will hopefully help fantasy managers make the sort of big decisions that will help tilt draft leagues and salary cap private leagues alike. Let's run them down starting at the top of the table and closing with sixth and then we'll be back later in the international break to discuss the stretch run for the rest of the pack.
Current Status: First in the Premier League table by a point and still alive in the Champions League relatively kind match-up with Porto where they will be heavily favored.
Remaining Matches: Liverpool have played one more match than the other members of the "big six" meaning that, for fantasy purposes, their players will be less valuable as potential mainstays in draft formats. The match-up with Porto does mean that there is at least a reasonable chance that the return leg will offer a chance to rotate the squad rather than being forced to do it in the league. As far as the quality of their remaining Premier League opposition, the Reds have two easy ones (@CAR & HUD), two fellow big-sixers at home (TOT and CHE), and three relatively challenging mid-table foes Wolves, @NUFC, and @SOU. With Wolves being objectively good, especially against the big boys and Newcastle and Southampton playing better than their places in the table down the stretch that’s five of seven matches where Liverpool are at least at some risk of dropping points and not producing great fantasy point totals.
Fantasy Notes: With Joe Gomez expected back after the international break or thereabouts, questions about who will start at the back for the Reds will be more difficult. Will Alexander-Arnold continue to be trusted in big matches? Will Gomez be thrown back in over Matip?
Current Status: Second on the technicality that they’ve played one fewer match than Liverpool, the Citizens are still fighting on three fronts having already secured the League Cup. The fact that they have one additional Premier League match remaining than the Reds would seem like an advantage but with such lofty ambitions as a Quadruple, the potential for rotation is pretty high and even more so with stronger quarterfinal opposition in the Champions League.
Remaining Matches: City have a kind stretch of the Premier League schedule through mid-April with @FUL, CAR, and @CPL offering an opportunity to pick up points while rotating the squad. Late April is the only remaining bump in the schedule as City add a Premier League date to their two Champions League dates with Spurs and then travel across Manchester for the derby at Old Trafford before closing out with three decidedly mid-table foes in @BUR, LEI, and BRI. The real complication here isn’t the strength of the schedule but the volume and the ambition to win all four available trophies this season.
Fantasy Notes; We haven’t seen as much of Gabriel Jesus (7 PL starts) and Riyad Mahrez (12 PL starts) as we thought we might this season but this is the part of the year where City’s quality of attacking depth will likely come to the fore. Look for both reserves to see more action than they have been and to continue to be very efficient with their chances.
Current Status: Spurs are in third but on current form their hold on that spot is tenuous at best. They are also still alive in the Champions League but face the daunting task of a quarterfinal home and home series with Manchester City. With a small squad riddled with injuries that have been played heavy minutes between deep World Cup runs and a lack of depth to rotate in the Premier League, the issues appear to be real. Spurs have few important players who aren’t also important for their countries so expect the International Break to be anything but for them.
Remaining Matches: It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire as Spurs move straight from the “break” to a match at Anfield to close out March. April is relatively kind with four home matches out of five total to be played but that fifth match, the away one, is a doozy as they travel to the Etihad. Throw in their two matches with City in the Champions League and it will be very interesting to see how Mauricio Pochettino allocates his resources. Does he focus on staying in this season’s Champions League or making sure he qualifies for the next? The match with Huddersfield Town on the 13th of April could be a trap with Champions League matches against Manchester City on either side of it followed by the Premier League match-up between the two sides. At least the schedule-makers were kind and have an already-relegated club in-between.
Fantasy Notes: Dele Alli has looked good since returning from injury which is certainly a good thing for Spurs. The only frustration for fantasy managers is that it may well eat into the minutes that Son Hueng Min sees. Son has been, ahem, on fire in the second half of the season and it will be frustrating if he is not a sure starter down the stretch but that’s certainly how it worked out. He was not in the squad for the loss against Southampton but any break will be minimal given two matches in his native South Korea over the break.
Current Status: The Gunners, unlike the two teams around them in the table, are enjoying some positive momentum. Sitting in fourth and a mere point out of third, they have come through the most difficult part of their schedule with a draw against Spurs and a win over white hot Manchester United. They are still fighting on two fronts – Premier League and Europa League – but the stretch is kind to the Gunners in the Premier League.
Remaining Matches: The only complaint that the Gunners can have at this point is that their remaining schedule is tilted towards away matches (5) rather than home (3) where they have been a much better side. Their away slate includes trips to Everton, Watford, Wolves, Leicester City, and Burnely which, while not intimidating, are at least all tricky. The home slate against Newcastle, Crystal Palace, and Brighton also won’t be without worry but the absence of any big six opponents while each of Arsenal’s rivals for Champions League qualification have two such meetings each should provide some insurance against a hiccup on the road against a mid-table foe. The only concern here is the unkind draw in the Europa League that sees Arsenal having to mix in a home and home against Napoli while navigating their run through the middle of the Premier League table in April.
Fantasy Notes: Aaron Ramsey has been passing the eye test in recent days but he has been surprisingly unproductive from a fantasy point of view. The soon-to-be Juventus player has a mere three Premier League goals and six assists on the campaign and only one of those goals (and none of the assists) has come since the New Years Day substitute strike in the 4-1 thrashing of Fulham. His goal against Spurs was certainly a big one but his long struggle may have him available in draft leagues and heavily motivated to leave the Emirates on a high note.
Current Status: The Red Devils appear to be doing the footballing equivalent of coming off of a Red Bull bender. The arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer injected them with unnatural energy and they rode it to a massive winning streak that crested with the comeback against PSG to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals. Unfortunately, the bill appears to be coming due with consecutive losses to Arsenal (Premier League) and Wolves (FA Cup) and then a date with Barcelona in the Champions League.
Remaining Matches: Anytime you see Barcelona on the schedule twice in a month, that’s going to be a tough run. Unfortunately for the Red Devils, the schedule-makers have inserted Premier League landmines in the early part of the month as they prepare for Messi and company in the form of WAT, @WOL, WHU, @EVE. If they manage to navigate those matches successfully, they get Manchester City and Chelsea at Old Trafford to close out April. Yikes! The only respite comes over the final two weeks with a trip to Huddersfield Town and a visit from Cardiff City. Not a pretty picture at all until May.
Fantasy Notes: With a manager who is still campaigning for the job full time, it will be fascinating to see how things play out. The Manchester United ethos would have you believe that they should be able to compete on multiple fronts successfully, even against the Barcelonas of the world. The reality is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to decide if it is more important to put all of his wood behind a competition he isn’t likely to win – the Champions League – or a race to be in that same competition again next season. Does he get the full time job at Old Trafford if he achieves neither? His decisions on rotation down the stretch will be fascinating but at least Alexis Sánchez has made it easier to exclude him by being ruled out until late April – good news for Anthony Martial’s value.
Current Status: The Blues have managed to follow any strong run of form with a giant stumble. No sooner do they beat Spurs in the League than they stub their collective toes against Wolves and Everton in consecutive Premier League matches. Despite their struggles, they have advanced in the Europa League so they’ll be fighting on two fronts for qualification for next season’s Champions League just like Arsenal are.
Remaining Schedule: The Blues had to be happy to see Slavia Prague draw as their Europa League quarterfinal opponent because the Czech outfit should allow at least some opportunity to rotate while they navigate a final eight Premier League matches that won’t be easy. It starts easily enough with a trip to Cardiff City after the break and visits from Brighton and West Ham after that shouldn’t be too much more of a challenge. Mid-April is where it starts to get rough. Sandwiched between their two matches against Slavia Prague is a trip to Anfield where the Reds will likely be in the heat of the title race. They get a quick rest with the visit of Burnley on the 22nd but then it’s off to Old Trafford for a match with Manchester United. The schedule closes out with Watford and Leicester City who won’t be easy work given current form. Hardly an easy road to gaining points on their top four rivals.
Fantasy Notes: Will the rigors of the schedule finally convince Maurizio Sarri that he should give meaningful time to talented youngsters Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi? It certainly SHOULD given how little the Blues have gotten from the players currently holding down those spots but given what we’ve seen from Sarri consider it a long shot (but one that will pay off nicely for fantasy managers if it comes in).