Frank Lampard and Jose Mouronho think so but can Sheffield United qualify for Europe?
Chelsea’s Frank Lampard has mentioned it and, speaking before watching his side beat Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho openly discussed the possibility too.
Indeed, it seems Chris Wilder is the only person unwilling to talk about Sheffield United’s chances of reaching Europe next season. Even record signing Sander Berge, after completing his £22m move from Genk, acknowledged that should now be the target for a squad which finds itself sixth in the Premier League table.
Wilder’s reluctance to talk-up United’s chances is wholly understandable.
Aware his players have already surpassed the targets they were set after being promoted last term, the 52-year-old does not want them to be overwhelmed by a sense of failure if a place in the Europa League proves beyond their reach.
But, given United enter Sunday’s home game against AFC Bournemouth only a point behind Mourinho’s team, Wilder’s powers of obfuscation are being tested to their limits. The subject of a top five or six finish is bound to be raised again during Friday’s pre-match media briefing. And it is to the credit of both him and his remarkable team that one of the most difficult items on Wilder’s in-tray, before he addresses the media at the Steelphalt Academy, is finding new ways of pretending he has heard an entirely different question.
“I’ve never even thought about Europe,” Wilder replied, before last weekend’s win over Crystal Palace, when one particularly dogged journalist attempted to raise the issue. “Well, we might have talked about going to Magaluf for three days or so.”
Of course, the odds remain stacked against United as they attempt to fend off challenges from some of the world’s biggest and most powerful clubs. Lampard, Mourinho and even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, despite Manchester United’s chequered results, have more experience at their disposal.
They also, Wilder has insisted on countless occasions, possess deeper pockets and reserves of talent.
Although the former is certainly true - Paul Pogba, the most expensive player in Old Trafford’s history, cost four times more than Berge - the differences in the latter have diminished following a flurry of new arrivals at Bramall Lane last month, where Berge has been joined by Panos Retsos, Richairo Zivkovic, Jack Robinson and Jack Rodwell. Intriguingly all five of United’s most recent acquisitions have performed in Europe at some stage of their career.
This could prove crucial over the coming weeks, as Wilder’s charges face a particularly demanding series of games. Both in a physical and an emotional sense.
Bournemouth, together with Brighton, Aston Villa and Norwich City, United’s next three opponents, are all fighting for survival at the opposite end of the table. All four, with the possible exception of Brighton, have shown their teeth of late.
Following the visit of City on March 7, United then face back to back away trips to Newcastle and Manchester United, before hosting Spurs in April.
Although Steve Bruce’s men are unlikely to be involved in the top five conversation, they have proven adept at beating those above them in the rankings and triumphed 2-0 when they travelled to South Yorkshire two months ago.
With the PL’s top four gaining entry to the Champions League, whoever finishes fifth in May will take part in the Europa League proper, together with the holders of the FA Cup. Whoever lifts the EFL Cup is assured of a place in the competitions qualifying rounds, although this framework can change.
If, say, Manchester City win the FA Cup, then whoever comes sixth will be included in the Europa League unless they have already booked a place in Europe via a knockout tournament.
So United, who have made it through the the last 16 of the FA Cup, have two realistic shots.
And reading between the lines, although he won’t thank anyone for highlighting it, Wilder clearly believes they have a chance of landing one.
If, as he has stated on countless occasions, United are “never satisfied” and “want to keep driving things forward”, then it would seem he is convinced they have yet to fulfil their full potential.
“It would be disrespectful for me to talk about anything but the next game in this division,” Wilder insisted. “Because it’s so demanding.
“Win the next game and try to get the next three points.
“Try and win the one after that and see where it takes us. That has to be the target.”