I think if you offered Ancelotti a Europa League qualification now, he'd bite your hand off.
Having said that, when we get to the summer, we'll look back and one of the teams around our area in the table will have put the run together they needed to, to get that Top 4 spot, in the final 12/13 games. Received wisdom will tell you it's likely to be Chelsea or Liverpool based on their resources, experience and quality but it's also not completely unthinkable that it could be Everton, (dare I say) West Ham or even Spurs.
The things that could potentially be in favour, as I see it :
- A pretty much fully fit squad, with one game per week for most weeks. Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs have European games at the moment. Not to mention, some squads have more injuries than us.
- Alan, our best central midfielder, coming back into the team and revitalising a key area.
- Richarlison, after a pretty poor season by his standards, just coming into form nicely. If he went on a tear for the rest of the season, along with DCL still scoring, that could propel us right up the table.
- Teams are going to keep taking points off each other around us. West Ham have City, Man U, Leeds and Arsenal to play in their next 4 games, Chelsea have Man U, Liverpool and us in their next three games. Every game is tricky for Liverpool at the moment. We might not necessarily need an outstanding total to get Top 4.
- We have a way of playing to get results against the big teams now, and a smart, experienced manager who is giving us tactical flexibility.
- A massive confidence boost with the derby result, and getting over a huge hurdle for the club as a whole. Sometimes those kind of results and breakthroughs can be the catalyst for a marked improvement in a team.
And the negatives, as I see them, re: an unlikely Top 4 finish for us:
- We haven't yet found a way of playing on the front foot, to put the 'should win' games away for the kind of form you normally need for Top 4.
- One of Chelsea or Liverpool have the capability to put a series of wins together that would make it difficult for the others.
- There's 4 others teams to probably overcome (Liverpool, Chelsea, West Ham, Spurs). We might be able to finish above 1, 2 or 3 of them, but all 4 is a big ask.
I think this week is pretty big for any outside chances of Top 4 that we might have. Not that it will be decided in any way, but we have Soton and West Brom in 3 days, and then the trip to Chelsea straight after that. If we got out of that with 6-9 points, we are right in the mixer. If it's 4 points or less, while it's not over, it would set us back a fair bit.
Just to reiterate, I'm not expecting a Top 4 push. I would be overjoyed with Europa League, as most people would, but there's no denying that there is an opportunity for a club to surprise everyone, and if a lot of things go right for us between now and the end of the season, maybe it could be us. We'll see...