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Forget the Big Six – the Champions League places are up for grabs

With Manchester City facing the prospect of a ban from European competitions for the next two seasons, pending an appeal, and a number of the traditional ‘big six’ clubs struggling for form, there has never been a better opportunity for so-called ‘smaller’ Premier League teams to crash the Champions League party.

Leicester City, despite a recent dip, already look likely to finish in the top four (or top five, should City’s ban be upheld), but regardless of the fate of the Citizens, there are a number of other sides that should all have their eyes firmly on the Champions League prize.

And why not, given that so many superpowers seem to be in crisis?

Sitting 10th, seven points off the final qualification spot, Arsenal still harbour faint hopes of dining at the top table next term, but despite a clear upturn in performances since Mikel Arteta took charge they may have left themselves too much to do at this stage.

Manchester United recorded an important win on Monday night, but seem unable to string a significant run of results together and have issues from the top down, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often appearing out of his depth in the hotseat.

Jose Mourinho has overseen something of a revival at fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, but it took a horrendous mistake from Bjorn Engels for them to overcome relegation-threatened Aston Villa at the weekend, and they are far from the force of recent campaigns.

Chelsea currently sit in the top four, but have been dogged by inconsistency since November, perhaps unsurprisingly given the youthful makeup of their side, and Monday’s defeat to United may well prove critical come the final reckoning.

So, for whom has the door swung ajar?

Sheffield United have had a superb campaign regardless of how it ends, the pre-season favourites for a swift return to the Championship upsetting all the odds to sit in sixth position.

Their run-in includes the chance to take points off Tottenham, Wolves and Chelsea at Bramall Lane, which will likely be the games that decide their fate.

Speaking of Wolves, the Midlands outfit have dropped a few unlucky points of late, but they are still holding firm in eighth spot and have a presentable set of games remaining, including facing four of the current bottom six in a row across March and April.

Much may depend on how far they progress in the Europa League, which has been a great competition for them this season and a journey the fans have revelled in.

Advance through the next couple of rounds and there would seem to be a genuine shot at silverware, and of course, winning that trophy would deliver Champions League football regardless.

However, if come the start of April they’re in the quarter-finals and have gained ground in the race for a top-five finish, will it become an agonising choice between the two, given Wolves’ relative lack of squad depth?

And then, there’s Everton.

Now managed by Carlo Ancelotti, the Blues have come from nowhere to put themselves firmly in the conversation.

That’s a reflection of both the legendary Italian’s influence on a side whose confidence has blossomed under his stewardship, but also the lack of quality in the rest of the league, meaning a string of positive results can see a club quickly climb the table.

A tricky spell of fixtures now awaits the Toffees, and realistically their challenge could be over following the clash with Liverpool at Goodison Park on March 16.

Navigate the next few weeks though without suffering a knockout blow, though, and there’s a big chance to finish on a high.

Even if City weren’t facing their ban, Everton, Wolves and Sheffield United would have a shot at the Champions League places.

However, given the possibility of fifth place securing a spot in the qualifiers, this is a chance that those clubs cannot let pass.

Liverpool may be running away with the title, but there is a power vacuum in the upper echelons of the Premier League, and those below them have rarely looked more fallible in recent years.

Leicester were able to pounce in similar circumstances to claim the title in 2016, but the intervening seasons have shown that those kinds of opportunities are incredibly rare.

When United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs invest in the summer, as they inevitably will, the door may close; the rest must kick it down while they can.

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