How ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ Man United could still limp clear of Tottenham and Arsenal to top four finish
The stakes are high, but the consistency... not so much.
In Australia, they have a phrase.
“Doing a Bradbury” entered the common vernacular almost exactly two decades ago, and refers to the phenomenon of somebody achieving an entirely unexpected success by virtue of merely being the last one standing.
You see, back in 2002, at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Steven Bradbury (imagine a lycra-clad Bambi with a Guy Fieri hairdo) headed into the final of the men’s 1,000m short track speed skating as the dead cert favourite to finish stone cold last. They were carving his name into the wooden spoon before he’d even laced up his skates.
And yet, against all reason and predominantly due to a devastating display of gravity’s ruthless majesty, Bradbury came away with Australia’s first ever gold medal at the Winter games after all four of his opponents tripped and crashed to the ice - leaving him to glide over the line in a state of disbelief.
You can’t help feeling that whoever wins the race for this year’s Premier League top four might just have to “do a Bradbury”.
At the time of writing, there are five - maybe six - sides in the running for that final Champions League qualification spot, and honestly, it’s almost too close to call.
Not because we’re bearing witness to some kind of immense gladiatorial tussle befitting of a seat at European football’s top table, but rather because those involved appear to be approaching the affair with all the grace and precision of a grizzly bear operating a sewing machine in clown shoes.
Dropped points, goal-scoring droughts, inexplicable moments of spontaneous combustion - this year’s UCL application process has been a textbook lesson in repeated self-sabotage from all parties.
Manchester United, West Ham, Arsenal, Tottenham, Wolves, and for all you eternal optimists out there, perhaps even Brighton, could all yet stake a claim for fourth, but whoever wins that pursuit looks likely to collapse over the line.
Undeniably, a couple of those horses are darker than the rest.
Ten points off the pace, albeit with a game in hand, Brighton are very much the plucky underdogs in the race for the top four - an Eddie the Eagle (Seagull?) among a glittering field of Matti Nykanens, if you will.
Mathematically, they still possess a glimmer of hope, but without a consistently potent striker to capitalise on their endearing brand of box-to-box supremacy, they somewhat resemble Casanova in a chastity belt.
This season’s charm offensive has done wonders for outside perceptions of Albion, and not least the reputation of manager Graham Potter, but until they sign that all-important marksman, they’re going to have to keep on attempting to storm the Bastille with a spud gun.
Goals are also proving to be something of a shortcoming for Bruno Lage’s Wolves side. Only Norwich City and Burnley have scored fewer times in the Premier League this season, and yet, Wanderers and their lofty European ambitions are hanging on in there.
In many respects, this is a squad in a state of flux - the January departure of baby oil freight train Adama Traore was the latest development in a gradual process of transfiguration, and it’s hard to not look at their heavily-Iberian squad and wonder if it’s still a few custard tarts short of a picnic basket.
There are solid foundations being built at Molineux, but Wolves’ frugality in the final third may ultimately cause their Champions League hopes to wither on the vine this year.
And that leaves us with the four remaining hopefuls. It’s like the latter stages of Pop Idol but all that’s left to vote for are various clones of the Cheeky Girls.
Of that unseemly quartet, you would imagine that David Moyes might suit a pair of red hot pants the least, and his West Ham side are also probably least likely to stay the distance in this sloppily scribbled comedy of errors. Is there a correlation between these two factors? I’ll let you be the judge of that...
Harrowing mental images aside, the Hammers could have strode into the second half of the season in a much more advantageous position had they not dropped the ball in the January transfer window.
Their lack of reinforcements in attacking areas (are you noticing a pattern here?) means that they now have to rely almost solely on human/pogo stick hybrid Michail Antonio in the goals department, and while Jarrod Bowen is currently wading knee deep through a vibrant purple patch, it remains to be seen whether he is an adequate substitute for, well, a substitute striker.
The Irons also have a fiendishly tricky run-in to deal with. Four of their final five matches are against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Brighton - and the other is against a Norwich City side who could still be scrapping for their lives as spring bleeds into summer.
On the face of it, Arsenal’s most obvious problem - and say it with me, folks - is that they are lacking a prolific striker.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s plummet from grace culminated in one of deadline day’s most bizarre sub-plots - a kind of Peter Odemwingie reboot with a lot more sunshine and a lot less Harry Redknapp - but he did eventually get his move to Barcelona, and now the Gunners are relying on the meagre firepower of Eddie Nketiah and Alexandre Lacazette.
Between them, the duo have just three Premier League goals to their name this season, and the Frenchman has scored all of them. Things aren’t exactly boding well.
It’s a shame too, because Mikel Arteta’s project at the Emirates is proving to be both exciting and increasingly fruitful. If his recruitment and progress continue on their current trajectory, Arsenal’s time will surely come - just maybe not this season.
Across north London, Antonio Conte has no such striking hindrances.
Tottenham poster boy Harry Kane is just about starting to purr again, albeit with the occasional splutter, and Son Heung-min continues stand out as the double-figure Premier League hitman you’d feel most comfortable bringing home to meet your parents.
Take into consideration the fact that Spurs have as many as three games in hand on the some of the teams above them, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re in a pretty strong position, right?
Well, yes and no.
A trio of consecutive top flight defeats coupled with an underwhelming transfer window have left Conte tearing his hair out - and that scalp did not come cheap.
But if there is one man you would back to steady a ship and instil some solidity in an ailing squad, it’s the animated Italian.
In many respects, he could be the ace up Spurs’ sleeve. Certainly, he’s the most accomplished manager with skin in this particular game, and if he can somehow find a way of stopping the rot, his side will be in with a chance.
Which brings us, somewhat contrarily, to Ralf Rangnick and Manchester United.
As things stand, United are perching precariously in that much-heralded fourth spot, but it’s hard to tell if it’s because of or in spite of their interim boss.
The German shook the monkey’s paw back in November and promptly arrived at Old Trafford with all the gusto and authority of a supply teacher drafted in to cover an unruly GCSE geography class.
Since then, results have improved, but meaningful tests have been few and far between, and various reports would have you believe that United’s dressing room has come to resemble a brattish Jenga tower - top heavy, teetering, and liable to implode at any moment.
And yet still, even as they limp through a minefield of banana skins and suffocate under a lahar of tabloid speculation, you can’t help feeling that the Reds might just have enough outstanding individual quality in fleeting moments to drag their Frankenstein’s monster marginally clear of their rivals.
Ordinarily, you suspect they’d be left scrabbling in the dust, but in this year of exceptional blunders, they might just end up being the default pick of a bad bunch. What an accolade to aspire for.
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