Nine teams are fighting for just three Champions League spots in what looks set to be the tightest race EVER


Before a ball was kicked in the 2020-21 season the talk was all about whether Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool could regain their crown and start a dynasty.

They were head and shoulders above all of their rivals in 2019-20, winning the league title with ease.

But, torn apart by Manchester City on Sunday, nobody is throwing the word ‘dynasty’ around, not for Liverpool. Now the race is on to even make the top four.

It looks like nobody will be able to derail City’s title charge now but the race for the other Champions League places is red-hot. Chelsea were marooned down in 10th but an unbeaten start to Thomas Tuchel’s reign has them firmly back in contention.

Everton and West Ham are refusing to go down without a fight, Tottenham and Aston Villa are still right in contention while Manchester United and Leicester hold the aces in the top three as things stand in early February.

Sportsmail looks at each of the nine candidates to join City among Europe’s elite next season, their form – or lack of – in recent weeks, the injury report, what the bookmakers’ are saying and the fixtures standing out as the games that could derail hopes of European football next season.


Current position: 2nd Points: 45

The most likely challengers to City but at this point their cross-city rivals can stretch their advantage to a sizeable eight points if they win their game in hand against Everton.

United have looked much improved for long periods this season but every now and then they show just why they are not to be trusted.

Seconds away from a 3-2 win over Everton and a free-kick pops free to Dominic Calvert-Lewin and the striker, far braver than goalkeeper David de Gea, scored to make it 3-3. Cue jubilation on the Everton bench. It was despair for United.

Games against West Brom and Newcastle, wrapped around a Europa League double-header with Real Sociedad, will require maximum points because then comes the acid test of United’s credentials – Manchester City, Chelsea and West Ham.

Having not beaten any of the traditional Big Six this season – they have had stalemates with Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal as well as a 6-1 home defeat to Tottenham – remains a legitimate criticism and concern if they are to see through this fraught race for a top-four spot.

Anything other than second would represent a disappointment now for United given they reached the summit not all that long ago and whispers of a title challenge grew louder and louder.

Paul Pogba’s injury against Everton is a concern and they will hope he is healthy in time for that season-defining run, starting at Stamford Bridge on February 28.


Current position: 3rd Points: 43

There was a moment where the question was asked: Can they do it again?

It would not have been 5000/1 this time round but title talk has vanished now and the focus for the Foxes is firmly on finishing in the top four.

Last season they blew it on the final day against Manchester United and a whole season’s work unravelled in 90 brutal minutes. They know they cannot make the same mistake this time.

One defeat in their last 10 league games shows the difficultly opponents face against Brendan Rodgers’ well-drilled side but their next game, at home to Liverpool, feels a very good examination as to whether they can sustain their top-four bid.

Depending on results elsewhere, defeat could see them drop and go within one point of Chelsea and West Ham, and so the real question is: Can they handle the pressure?

It spoke volumes that a draw against Wolves was viewed as a bitter disappointment and it showed how far this side have come.

They don’t score as many goals as United and Liverpool but only City and Chelsea in the top seven offer up a better defensive record.

Home form will make or break Leicester’s bid, ultimately.

Five of their six league defeats so far this season have arrived at the King Power Stadium and with Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham still to pay them a visit, it is those games that could prove the Foxes’ undoing if things – as they did last season – go awry.


Current position: 4th Points: 40

Whether they like it or not Liverpool need to get into the reality of the situation.

If they cannot get a grip of their season they risk missing out on the top four altogether.

Jamie Carragher described that situation as ‘unthinkable’ at the start of the season and yet here they are. Three defeats on the spin at Anfield and a daunting trip to Leicester next.

That game has immense significance for Klopp and his players as they look to bounce back from their 4-1 mauling by City, and there is no let-up either.

Leicester, a trip to Budapest to play RB Leipzig in the last-16 of the Champions League, and then a Merseyside derby against Everton ensures this side have no time to feel sorry for themselves. The challenge now is to salvage a season that is spiralling.

Liverpool are 27 points worse off than they were at this stage last season and part of that has come about through major injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.

But it is too simplistic to pin all of their struggles on losing their first-choice centre back pairing. Van Dijk’s leadership is impossible to replace but levels have dropped all over the pitch and the fear factor around this side has long evaporated.

Having reached the top of the mountain in winning the title, it appears this group lost an ounce of motivation to go hiking once again and they’ve paid for it.

Lose to Leicester and they could find themselves just two points ahead of Aston Villa, who are currently sat down in ninth.

Fail to stop the rot at the King Power Stadium and it really will be panic stations on Merseyside.


Current position: 5th Points: 39

When Frank Lampard was given the boot, there were sections of Chelsea’s support wondering if a top-four finish was out of reach.

Down in eighth, and then temporarily in 10th, Thomas Tuchel arrived as a firefighter for a side all over the place.

The big-money summer signings were struggling to make any impact, they had lost six games and, having been comfortably swept aside by Leicester, it was asked whether this group had what it takes.

Well, Tuchel is finding a tune out of them and having been unbeaten since the German took charge, they are well and truly back in the race.

Five goals scored, one conceded and 10 points taken from 12.


Current position: 6th Points: 39

It is safe to say that, having just avoided relegation last season, even the most optimistic West Ham was not expecting a top-four challenge this time round.

They’ll take it, of course, and David Moyes deserves huge credit for the job he has done to transform the Hammers into legitimate contenders for Champions League football.

The former Everton and Manchester United manager has raised levels of players like Angelo Ogbonna and has also been very clever in the transfer market with moves for Tomas Soucek, Vladimir Coufal and Jesse Lingard.

‘We’re not the old West Ham any more, we’re the new West Ham and we’re going to try to become even better,’ he said last month, and it still rings true, even with the disappointment of a draw at Fulham.


Current position: 7th Points: 37

How big will that late equaliser at Old Trafford prove to be?

Win both of their games in hand and they will be in the top four. That simple.

The issue? One is against Man City and the other is against an in-form Aston Villa. Far easier said than done but the late, late show at Old Trafford can definitely have a galvanising effect on Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

City, Liverpool, Southampton and Chelsea games will make or break this unlikely top-four bid but there is not a lack of quality in this side and on their day Everton can knock off anyone.


Current position: 8th Points: 36

Jose Mourinho will be counting his lucky stars that Harry Kane’s injury was not worse than it turned out to be.

Any time the England striker hits the ground there is a collective intake of breath in north London. Against Liverpool his ankles took a battering but as he scored against West Brom he appeared as fresh as ever.

That is key. Tottenham showed they are only going one direction without him and it was not up.

If Tottenham are going to salvage this season then it starts and ends with a fit and firing Kane.


Current position: 9th Points: 35

Much like West Ham, given they needed a last-day result to survive last season, who saw this coming?

Dean Smith is firmly in the conversation for Manager of the Year and were he to win it would certainly be deserved given the turnaround he has masterminded at Villa Park.

Villa are an ambitious club with a rich history. Co-owner Nassef Sawiris signed off spending of £150m on new players before the 2019-20 season and £80m more last summer.

‘Our owners came out at the start of the season, and when they first came to the club, about what they are looking to build towards,’ Smith said earlier this season.


Current position: 11th Points: 31

Just when Mikel Arteta appears to take a step forward, Arsenal then take two steps back.

The fact they are even in this conversation is testament to the Spaniard’s turnaround given there was a belief that a relegation battle was brewing for a hapless Arsenal.

Without a win in three, hopes of gatecrashing the top four have largely subsided at the Emirates Stadium with fears returning of finishing in the bottom half resurfacing – they slipped down to 11th after Leeds’ win over Crystal Palace on Monday night.

Home form is the key now with Leeds, Man City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton all due at the Emirates between now and the season’s conclusion.