Richard Buxton: The EPL clubs' race to be in Europe
Our columnist picks the Certainties, the ones in the Drivers' Seat and the Continental Dreamers
The English Premier League's race for Europe is well and truly hotting up.
No fewer than eight sides are fighting it out to secure a place in either the Champions League or the Europa League, with only six points separating the continental chasing pack.
Here are the teams bidding to find themselves heading to foreign soil next season:
- MANCHESTER CITY (2nd, 51 pts)
Priorities have shifted for Pep Guardiola after failing to win a third EPL title on the spin.
Delaying Liverpool's coronation adds fresh incentive to an underwhelming campaign for City, but the chasm between themselves and the runaway leaders now stands at 22 points.
Every monumental step that Juergen Klopp's side make towards the crown is amplified by City's slip-ups, most recently in a 2-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur this month.
Little wonder, then, that Guardiola is refusing to take a Champions League spot for granted; especially with a run-in over the next seven weeks that includes trips to Leicester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, while also hosting the Reds as likely new champions.
Next weekend's clash at the King Power Stadium poses its own dilemmas for the City boss, ahead of a Champions League showdown with Real Madrid four days later, and the small matter of still contesting both the FA and League Cups in the coming weeks.
Something has to give, but Guardiola will not sacrifice a place in Europe's premier club competition, even if the Etihad Stadium's relationship with it remains highly complicated.
- LEICESTER CITY (3rd, 49 pts)
Another chapter has been added to the Foxes' fairy tale under Brendan Rodgers.
The ex-Liverpool boss' decision to take the reins at the King Power 12 months ago laid the groundwork for a swift return to the EPL's upper echelons after their 2016 title triumph.
But maintaining Leicester's current momentum will see Rodgers' coaching abilities truly tested in the next fortnight- with a face-off against European hopefuls Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday morning (Singapore time) and City's visit the following weekend.
In the final three games of the campaign, they will do battle with half of the chasing pack as Sheffield United, Tottenham and Man United look to stake their own European claims.
IN THE DRIVERS' SEAT
- CHELSEA (4th, 41 pts)
Frank Lampard could be forgiven for asking himself why and how things have deteriorated.
A dream start to life in the Stamford Bridge hot seat unravelled after his side racked up six consecutive victories in November. They have won just four of their 13 games since.
That failure to ease the burden on Tammy Abraham may come home to roost in the next few weeks, with back-to-back home encounters against United and Tottenham, followed by their Round of 16, first-leg showdown with Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Lampard's hopes of accumulating another winning streak appears equally unlikely in the weeks ahead. Chelsea face not only rivals for a European spot, including Wolves, Everton and Sheffield, but also those still fighting for their EPL survival.
The former England international's lack of senior managerial experience has yet to count against him, but failing to clinch a top-four place will throw him back under the microscope.
- SHEFFIELD UNITED (5th, 39 pts)
Historically, the Blades have been a perennial thorn in the side of their established EPL peers.
Chris Wilder's side continue to look well-placed to become the first newcomers since Ipswich Town in the 2000/01 season to follow up their promotion by securing Europa League qualification.
Juggling continental commitments with preserving their top-flight status proved the Tractor Boys' undoing just a year later, yet Wilder can succeed where George Burley's side faltered.
A team that were playing in the third tier of English football just three seasons ago were early favourites to be relegated at the start of this term, with a European position priced at 100-1.
Despite being two points off the last Champions League place, Bramall Lane's dream of facing the likes of Barcelona may prove fanciful.
January's signing of Sander Berge, however, has already produced a catalytic effect that sees them winning the battle for a fifth-placed finish.
- TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (6th, 37 pts)
A newly shaven head tends to be a sign that Jose Mourinho means business. Whenever the clippers come out, the Special One is preparing to again do battle.
Mourinho's initially cuddly facade in north London has finally slipped. So, too, has the mid-table mediocrity which was somewhat unbecoming of this modern Tottenham side.
That Spurs find themselves still in the reckoning for a European place after languishing in 14th when the Portuguese succeeded Mauricio Pochettino is a testament to his abilities.
Supporters may not agree with his methods, but he has ensured that the Lilywhites remain on the competitive trail despite Harry Kane's injury and the belated departure of Christian Eriksen.
If Mourinho is truly back on his A-game, a slightly more favourable run-in than their rivals for the top five could lead to another progressive year at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
- EVERTON (7th, 36 pts)
Few long-suffering Evertonians would have believed that they would be ending this season knocking on the door for a European place during the doldrums of Marco Silva's tenure.
Carlo Ancelotti's appointment as Silva's successor proved that nothing is impossible, even for a team at the wrong end of the EPL table at the midway point.
If there is a point of reckoning that derails the Toffees' bold ambitions, it will be the enemy within, as too many senior players have been guilty of disappearing during crucial games.
Doubts over Jordan Pickford's status as England's No. 1 too, grow on a near-weekly basis as the cocksure goalkeeper produces a succession of erratic displays that lead to goals.
Against this backdrop, Ancelotti's feat of restoring Everton's place within continental football would rank among some of the greatest accomplishments of his managerial career.
- MANCHESTER UNITED (8th, 35 pts)
By their own admission, the Red Devils are not yet where they want to be.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is clinging to the Old Trafford hot seat by his fingernails and banking on left-field January signings to salvage his side's worst league season for over 30 years.
Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo, whose arrival on loan was another example of the 20-time English champions' aimless strategy in a bid to deliver a return to their glory years, will need to bed in fast.
Six points currently separate United from Chelsea in fourth, but that gulf will become almost insurmountable if Solskjaer cannot mastermind another shock at Stamford Bridge next week.
By that stage, their best bet of securing a Champions League return will be through another backdoor entry by winning the Europa League, just as they did under Mourinho in 2016/17.
- WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS (9th, 35 pts)
European ambitions do not automatically mean a downturn in league form - Wolves are living proof.
After playing 41 games in all competitions, Nuno Espirito Santo's side may appear slightly jaded yet are no less competitive for starting their Europa League exploits last summer.
If anything, it has helped maintain focus, not least in the cases of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho. The pair's attacking qualities have been a recurring theme from week to week.
After stunning Man City, frustrating United and giving Liverpool a scare in recent weeks, do not expect Wolves to give up their Europa League dream without a fight.