Chelsea v manchester united

Premier League: The Crucial Phase

The Premier League returns after the international break but where are the crucial fixtures that will determine the title, top four and relegation?

With last week's prolonged International break behind us we can now concentrate on the Premier League run in. Will Chelsea splutter their way past the finish line or can one of the Manchester clubs spring a surprise? The race for the top four isn't over yet with Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton all casting a hopeful eye on gate-crashing the party.

Elsewhere, will the appointment of Dick Advocaat save Sunderland from their impending doom and have QPR and Leicester left themselves too much do as we approach the final stretch of the season?

Here are FIVE key games that will decide the fate of the basement dwellers and tell us where the Premier League trophy will be heading at the end of May.

Chelsea v Manchester United - 18 April 2015

Game week 33 sees a repeat of Jose Mourinho's first game in charge of Chelsea. It ended 1-0 to the West London club and I am sure the Chelsea boss would snap your hand off for the same result in two weeks’ time.

Chelsea have pretty much led the table from start to finish this season but they have looked far from a vintage side. They almost threw away a 2-0 lead at Hull last time out (they edged it 3-2 after being pegged back to 2-2), while they were given a lesson, to some extent, by the 10 men of Paris SG in the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Meanwhile, the Red Devils have put some daylight between themselves and Liverpool and will now be looking up the table. Victory at Stamford Bridge will certainly give them hope and would expose another chink in Chelsea's armour.

And with Arsenal up next for Chelsea they can't afford to keep dropping points.

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur - 25 April 2015

Ronald Koeman's side welcome European chasing rivals Tottenham Hotspur to St. Marys at the back end of April. It's a crunch game for both managers and will go a long way to defining their season. Defeat for either side here will surely extinguish any hopes of Champions League football while denting their Europa League chances too.

Southampton have the meanest defence in the league, shipping just 21 goals in 20 games, however, Spurs can counter that statistic with the strongest attack on the road outside of the top four. So something will have to give here.

Spurs have a tricky run in with five of their final eight games away from home while one of those home matches is against the champions Manchester City. The reverse fixture was a 1-0 win for the North London club and it would be no surprise to see the same score line here.

Sunderland v Leicester - 16 May 2015

The Premier League may have sold the latest round of TV rights for over £5bn but the quality of the league itself appears to have dipped, especially at the bottom. Survival this season looks to come in the shape of around 32/33 points and Sunderland will be hoping to reach that target when their entertain basement boys Leicester City on the 16th of May.

Dick Advocaat has been parachuted into the manager’s job at Sunderland and has been given the task of saving them from the drop, but he will need to get points on the board quickly. They are currently one point above Burnley, who look the most likely team to put their heads above the parapet.

Sunderland need a result here as they face Arsenal and Manchester City - both away from home in the final two games.

Chelsea v Liverpool - 19 May 2015

How the tables have turned. When Liverpool faced Chelsea this time last year they had one hand on the Premier League trophy, but that 2-0 defeat at Anfield, orchestrated by the cruellest of slips by Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, saw their title hopes fade away.

Brendan Rodgers, however, would love to return the favour if Chelsea find themselves within striking distance of the chasing pack. Liverpool also need to pick up as many points as they can if they want Champions League football (and Raheem Sterling) next season. It's a massive game for both sides.

Chelsea, however, have a formidable home record this season picking 36 points from a possible 42 and conceding just six goals in the process. The pressure is firmly on the shoulders of the visitors in this fixture.

Leicester v QPR - 24 May 2015

The final day of the season sees Leicester host QPR - it would be a remarkable turn of events if a victory here for either side would save them from relegation - but stranger things have happened.

Usually a team at the bottom of the league goes a run of three of four wins in the final weeks of the season to give themselves a fighting chance. And how Leicester need that right now as they are seven points adrift of Sunderland in 17th place but they do have some winnable fixtures ahead.

QPR, on the other hand, are just four points from safety but have a fixture list from hell to contend with - Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City all lie in wait. While their recent form also offers little hope with just one win in 11 matches.

Nevertheless, it would be a dramatic finale to the season if either escaped relegation with three points here.