Newcastle United suffered a double blow at the weekend. Within the space of a few hours on Sunday, Eddie Howe's team were beaten in the club's first major final since 1999 and also saw Tottenham open up a four-point gap in the race to claim the fourth and final Champions League spot.
The good news for Newcastle is that they have played two games fewer than Spurs, so the four-point deficit could become a two-point lead if they win their two outstanding fixtures. But Newcastle are just one of six teams now playing the numbers game in the pursuit of Champions League qualification, and none of them can claim to be in the form to make them favourites to finish fourth.
If leaders Arsenal, second-place Manchester City and third-place Manchester United, who have an eight-point cushion between themselves and fifth-place Newcastle, are on course for a Champions League spot, the congested scramble to take the fourth spot stretches down as far as Brentford in ninth, with 10th-placed Chelsea now closer to the bottom three than the top four following their 2-0 defeat at Spurs on Sunday.
Brentford in the Champions League? Why not? Thomas Frank's team, who have beaten United, City and Liverpool this season, are 10 points behind Spurs, but they have two games in hand.
While they are clearly outsiders to climb into the top four, Brentford are unbeaten in the Premier League since October, winning five and drawing six, so they are collecting points while their rivals are losing games.
To have any serious hope of finishing fourth, they will need to turn draws into wins, but Brentford's next five fixtures sees them face top-four rivals Fulham and Brighton, as well as struggling Everton, Southampton and Leicester, so it is a run of games that will make or break their prospects.
Brighton are ahead of Brentford on goal difference and have three games in hand on Spurs, so Roberto De Zerbi's team are certainly in the mix if they can win at least two of those games. Saturday's 1-0 defeat against Fulham was their first loss in 2023, and a costly one with Fulham consolidating sixth place by virtue of their win. But having beaten United, Chelsea and Liverpool this season, Brighton are a dangerous team capable of sustaining their push for fourth.
Liverpool, in seventh, are the most unpredictable team in the chasing pack. Jurgen Klopp's side have the attacking options to surge into the top four, but their defensive shortcomings and lack of consistency in midfield threaten to scupper their hopes. After beating Newcastle at St James' Park nine days ago, Liverpool seemed favourites to finish fourth, but they simply cannot build any momentum. They have won just three of their past 11 games in all competitions and are now nine points behind Spurs, albeit with two games in hand.
Liverpool's home game against Spurs on April 30 could be decisive, but only if Klopp's side find some form in the weeks ahead -- a tough ask considering their next six league games includes fixtures against United, City and Arsenal.
But for back-to-back defeats against Newcastle and Spurs in January, Fulham would be in a much stronger position to claim a surprise top-four finish following promotion from the EFL Championship last season. Having played 25 games, more than all their rivals bar Spurs, Fulham could be reeled in by the pack, but the flip-side is that they have points in the bag and are just six points behind Tottenham.
Coach Marco Silva's success in revitalising players with a point to prove in the Premier League, including Andreas Pereira, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Willian, has been key to Fulham's impressive season to date. But with Brentford, Arsenal and Liverpool next up in the league, their prospects will soon become clearer.
In terms of points already attained and games in hand, Newcastle are arguably in the strongest position. But when you consider their recent form, it now seems a tall order to Howe's side to take advantage of their outstanding fixtures. They have won just once in their past seven Premier League games, scoring three goals during that run, and their momentum is heading in the wrong direction.
Miguel Almiron, Newcastle's top scorer with 10 league goals, has netted twice since the World Cup, making the team's problems obvious. If they fail to bounce back from their loss in the Carabao Cup final against United, Newcastle could even slip out of the Europa League places.
So Spurs, with four wins in their last five Premier League games, are the team to beat in the race for fourth.
A three-game streak in April, which sees them travel to Newcastle and Liverpool on either side of playing United at home, gives Spurs the opportunity to finish off their biggest rivals and ensure a comfortable end to the season.
Spurs have shown their inconsistencies this season, so they are hardly a safe bet. It is a six-team battle -- some will fall by the wayside in the weeks ahead, but if any of the six can find form and consistency, they will qualify for the Champions League.