Chelsea are the worst fourth-placed team since 2004, Spurs are striker-less and Man Utd are relying on Odion Ighalo to fire them up the league… the race for Europe is WIDE OPEN this season
- Chelsea are fourth with 41 points, the joint-lowest at this stage since 2003-04
- Newcastle had that total after 26 games and were pipped to fourth by Liverpool
- This could be the worst top four race ever with several sides underperforming
- Tottenham and Man United have struggled to produce results consistently
- Now Sheffield United and Wolves have a chance to swoop in and cause a shock
Does anyone want to qualify for the Champions League this season? Based on the current league standings, it appears not.
The race to finish in the top four is as wide open as it’s ever been, with just 10 points separating Chelsea in fourth and Newcastle in 13th.
While the Blues may be leading the race to qualify for next season’s group stage, they also have the joint lowest points total of any fourth-placed team at this stage of the season.
Frank Lampard’s Chelsea have the joint-worst total for a fourth-placed team after 26 games
The previous lowest total after 26 games was Newcastle in 2003-04, who also had 41 points, but with a better goal difference. The Magpies ended up being pipped to fourth by Liverpool that season, who finished with just 60 points.
The magic point mark to finish in the top four has historically been around the 70 mark, but in recent years that total hasn’t been enough to guarantee you a place.
In this campaign the required total will very likely be much lower than the usual target of 70, and with Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal failing to produce results consistently, the likes of Sheffield United and Wolves are in with a shout of beating them to the punch.
Sportsmail takes a closer look at the contenders for the top four, their chances of making it and the challenges they have faced.
Chelsea – 4th
Lampard’s young side have shown their frailties this season but they are still in fourth spot
It was always going to be an uphill struggle for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea this season after a two-window transfer ban, with the club legend forced to bring in some young faces from the youth team to freshen things up.
The Blues have defied expectations for much of the campaign, with youth stars such as Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Mason Mount stepping up to deliver and keep Chelsea in the top four hunt.
But Lampard’s young guns have also shown their frailties at the back.
The team are winless in their last five and have conceded 36 goals – the highest of any side in the top seven.
Their home form is particularly alarming, with seven defeats at Stamford Bridge in all competitions, the most since 1994-95. Overall they have been beaten nine times already – the second most in the top 10.
Lampard wasn’t backed in the transfer window and feels his side are underdogs for the top four
Lampard wasn’t backed by Chelsea in January after their transfer ban was reduced to one window, and he wasn’t able to recruit a new forward and defender like he had been hoping.
Meanwhile, Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal have all made additions to their squad, and Lampard said Chelsea were now the underdogs.
‘I think at the start of the season nobody had us in their top four,’ he said after the window closed. ‘But the reality is that now… it’s going to be a real big fight.
‘This is not to talk ourselves down, because we’re six points clear in fourth, [but] now we probably become the underdogs … because the teams around us have strengthened.’
Tottenham – 5th
Jose Mourinho has turned things around at Tottenham but still faces a number of challenges
Spurs have had a rollercoaster ride of a season with plenty of loops and bumps along the way.
Mauricio Pochettino got the chop after a downturn in form and the team stuck in mid-table, while his replacement Jose Mourinho was only able to engineer a temporary upturn in results before it all started to go stale again.
Tottenham haven’t been helped by their mounting injury list either.
While they have hauled themselves up the table and are just one point behind Chelsea before playing them on Saturday, they are without a host of key names.
Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Moussa Sissoko are all out, and while Steven Bergwijn and Gedson Fernandes came in last month, Mourinho is now without a senior centre forward to lead him through the rest of the season.
A huge cloud had been hanging over Tottenham after the ‘Special One’ came in, with the futures of players up in the air and a top four finish looking beyond them.
He has lost both Harry Kane and Son Heung-min to injury and is without a senior forward
Toby Alderweireld committed his future to the club, but Christian Eriksen was sold to Inter Milan with his contract set to expire this summer, and now Jan Vertonghen remains the last rebel who is yet to sign.
There is a feeling that Mourinho has stemmed the tide in north London, but some disjointed performances and slow starts to games indicates he still has work to do.
Spurs face a run of crucial fixtures to come, first in a crunch clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, before facing Wolves and Manchester United at home in March.
Five wins in their last seven had made them one of the favourites for the top four, but with a lack of firepower to round off the campaign, it will be a tough ask for Mourinho’s men to get the job done.
Sheffield United – 6th
Chris Wilder has done a great job with Sheffield United and a top four finish is not beyond them
Not many fancied Sheffield United to stay up, let alone secure a European finish this season after promotion from the Championship, but they continue to make a mockery of the bookies’ odds.
Chris Wilder’s team base themselves around a solid defence – they have let in just 24 goals this season, which is the third fewest after Liverpool and Leicester.
That stubbornness will stand them in good stead if they are serious about a push for the Champions League spots, but if there’s one thing that’s letting them down it’s their quality at the other end of the pitch.
They have scored just 28 times in the league this season – six less than relegation threatened Aston Villa and only four more than rock-bottom Norwich. Their top scorer is midfielder John Fleck, which gives some insight into their goalscoring woes.
The Blades are flying high but may lack firepower to secure Champions League qualification
But despite a lack of guile up top, results keep coming in, with three wins in their last six and only failing to beat Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool in that time.
They are in the hunt for both the Europa League and the Champions League, only two points off Chelsea in fourth with favourable fixtures on the horizon.
Their next three games are Brighton and Norwich at home, followed by Newcastle away before two big tests against Manchester United and Spurs. That should tell us what we need to know about the Blades’ credentials this season.
Manchester United – 7th
Where to start? Media reports had claimed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was on the verge of losing his job a number of times after he oversaw the club’s worst start to a season in 30 years.
United’s squad has looked thin for much of the season and has been summed up by an inability to beat the teams they should be beating, then coming up with results against the top sides in the division.
Manchester United suffered a terrible start to the league season, their worst for 30 years
The Red Devils have lost eight times this season and only one of those games came against a team in the top 10 at the time.
They lost 2-0 to Arsenal and Liverpool, but Solskjaer has also masterminded wins over Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, as well as becoming the only team to take a point off Liverpool this season.
But their other six losses have come against the likes of Crystal Palace, West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Watford and Burnley. Had United been able to turn those dismal results into wins, the top four picture could be very different indeed.
The end of March sees United come up against Manchester City, Spurs and Sheffield United, a run that could make or break their season.
Solskjaer will also have to juggle his assault on the top four with a push to win the Europa League and FA Cup.
Things have improved under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but consistency in results remains an issue
United are competing in three competitions and will have to rotate to prevent player burnout
United strengthened in January with the signings of Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo, boosting their options in midfield and in attack, which could give them the edge over their rivals. The £68million acquisition of Fernandes – who can open teams up and bolsters the team’s creativity – is a sign of their intent.
But the team have to show they are capable of stringing results together for the rest of the campaign.
They have not managed to win more than two games in a row this term and often follow up one big result with an underwhelming performance.
The revenue coming from Champions League football is vital for a club of United’s standing and they can ill afford to miss out on the premier competition again after coming sixth last season.
Wolves are making a splash under Nuno Espirito Santo but a top four finish will be a big ask
Wolves are still within touching distance of the top four and are just five points off Chelsea in eighth place, but Nuno Espirito Santo’s men are having a run of patchy form which won’t help their case.
They’ll be confident of making a push for the Europa League, where they are currently in the knockout stages, but a top four finish will be a big ask.
Revived under Carlo Ancelotti, Everton have soared into the top half and are also five points off Chelsea, and three wins in five gives them a good feeling about their chances of a European finish.
Things have improved under Carlo Ancelotti at Everton as the Toffees eye a European finish
Arsenal will still believe they can finish fourth but are currently 10th in the Premier League
However, they are faced with a menacing run-in in their next four games as they play Arsenal, who are directly below them, before playing Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Meanwhile, the Gunners are looking far away from a top four finish right now as Mikel Arteta’s side sit in 10th with seven points separating them from Chelsea.
The Gunners can’t seem to rack up the wins of late but ended a run of four draws in a row with a rampant 4-0 win over Newcastle after their international break.
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