The race for European qualification – The outsiders


With any new Premier League season, the majority of focus is shone in the direction of the ‘big six’ and the presumption that they will dominate the race for European qualification. However, with Leicester and Wolves challenging the status quo over the past couple of years, it is perhaps time to look at the competition with a wider focus.

As Liverpool and Manchester City look set to tussle for the title again, there will inevitably be plenty of column inches dedicated to those two outfits, as well as the quartet who also boast membership to the competition’s exclusive group.

So, what about the clubs who will hope to upset the status quo and, not just secure European qualification, but earn themselves an invite to the top table of continental football?

An invite that looked like it was to be handed to Leicester at the tail end of last season but, after the bitter disappointment of missing out on Champions League football, Brendan Rodgers will need to boost the collective spirits within the King Power Stadium.

It is a squad that no longer includes the services of Ben Chilwell, with the England international swapping the East Midlands for West London. The void at left-back will be filled by Belgium’s Timothy Castagne.

Although that may be Leicester’s only incoming at the time of writing, the business of Jamie Vardy’s new contract should not be underestimated either and, with the 2019/20 Golden Boot winner committing his future to the club, more goals should be on the menu this season.

Another midlands hopeful, Wolves, will be looking to continue their upward trajectory in the Premier League and secure European qualification once again. With no Europa League exploits to deal with this time around, a relaxed midweek schedule may end up aiding them in the long run.

Their Europa League campaign was impressive as, with a schedule that was more than a year long (albeit with a global pandemic getting in the way), it is fair to say that their tanks were running on empty by the time they were knocked out by eventual winners Sevilla.

With the ability to play almost exclusively once a week, Wolves could find themselves giving the more established clubs a bloody nose this season and with a much more compact campaign to deal with, a continual climb up the league ladder is not out of the question.

Looking at Wolves’ transfer business, it has certainly been more evolution than revolution. With Fabio Silva joining from FC Porto for £36m, the 18-year-old is certainly going to be in the spotlight.

How much of an immediate impact the teenager can make remains to be seen but it is fair to say that Nuno Espirito Santo must have seen something in him and the hope, if not the expectation, is that the former FC Porto forward can pay off his sizeable transfer fee quite quickly and fire them into European Qualification.

If Wolves do surge up the table, it might make life more difficult for Everton. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has been afforded a sizeable bedding in period and the Toffees can no longer get away with being labelled “a work in progress”

That was the excuse that was bandied around with every defeat which came in the second half of last season and, with the legendary Italian coach purchasing no less than three midfielders in the past week, he has certainly identified where change needed to be made.

It is fair to say that Everton’s midfield was a rather pedestrian offering at times and the new arrivals of Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure and James Rodriguez, should begin to provide much needed guile and flair in equal measures.

Everton spending a decent amount of money doesn’t necessarily guarantee success or European qualifictaion and you only have to look at the indifferent business that the club has carried out since the arrival of majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri as proof of this.

A litany of signings have failed to live up to the mark since making Goodison Park their home. A list that includes the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi, the club cannot afford to make the same costly recruitment mistakes.

On the south coast, Ralph Hasenhuttl looked like he was set for the St Mary’s exit door after overseeing an embarrassing 9-0 home defeat to Leicester. However, the board’s patience has certainly been rewarded.

Armed with a new contract the Austrian is finally shaping the club as his own and, although Southampton have been steady rather than spectacular these past few years, there is an air of optimism swirling around Hampshire.

With the race for European places being so cut-throat, it might be a reward that alludes the club this time around. Then again, should the Saints find themselves finishing in the top-half of the table, it must be considered as a job very well done.

Finally it wouldn’t be right to finish without a reference to Leeds United. As Marcelo Bielsa prepares to make his Premier League bow, the Yorkshire outfit will not be looking to simply make up the numbers but emulate local rivals Sheffield United and steer well clear of the relegation zone. They certainly won’t be expecting European qualification at the first attempt but, after spending heavily, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

 


 

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