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Dropped points in Top Four race point to wild February

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Regardless of whether Wolves end Liverpool’s unbeaten Premier League season on Thursday, there will be five teams within seven points of fourth place heading into Matchweek 25.

Chelsea has 40, a comfortable-enough six-point lead on Manchester United, Spurs, and Wolves (who meet Liverpool at 3 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Sheffield United has 33 points.

February, specifically the next three matchweeks, will see the teams inside that group learn a lot more about their fates, and give Chelsea and Sheffield United big opportunities to cement their places in the Top Four and Seven, respectively.

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In the case of the latter, it’s because the Blades are the only team in the bunch who don’t face a Top Four six-pointer; Chris Wilder‘s men will meet Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Brighton, while the others will be beating up each other.

Chelsea’s path is fraught, but a big opportunity. The Blues travel to Leicester City before hosting both Manchester United and Spurs. Nine points there would effectively Top Four-proof Frank Lampard‘s side.

By the way, how’s this for a hot take? If any of Chelsea, Man Utd, or Spurs find their center forward or playmaker help in the window, they’ll have a leg up on their Top Four rivals. And, really, is that extra few million pounds worth the spoils of the Champions League? Yup.

Bruno Fernandes is not (yet) with United, and the Red Devils face Wolves and Chelsea in their next two matches. Spurs have City and Chelsea. Tumult is probable!

A draw with Newcastle and loss at Watford dampened Wolves’ hopes of riding into fourth. Beginning with Thursday’s visit from Liverpool, however, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men face three of the Top Seven and then a visit from Norwich City. It’s not over.

And don’t entirely rule out Leicester City from dropping into the fray; The Foxes host Chelsea and Man City, and visit Wolves.

One more nod, however improbable: Arsenal sits 10 points back of fourth but meets Burnley, Newcastle, and Everton over those three match weeks. A perfect run could have the Gunners thinking big (Man City is after that, alas).

Matchday 25
Leicester City v. Chelsea
Crystal Palace v. Sheffield United
Manchester United v. Wolves
Spurs v. Man City

Matchday 25
Sheffield United v. Bournemouth
Wolves v. Leicester City
Chelsea v. Manchester United
Aston Villa v. Tottenham Hotspur

Matchday 27
Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City v. Man City
Wolves v. Norwich City
Sheffield United v. Brighton
Manchester United v. Watford

Spurs play Wolves the next week, too!

Solskjaer: United have made ‘strides forward’

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Ole Gunnaer Solskjaer believes his Manchester United side have taken “strides forward” following their 2-0 defeat at bitter rivals Liverpool on Sunday.

United were outplayed for the vats majority of the game and were lucky to be only 1-0 down heading into the 90th minute but the grit and determination they showed impressed Solskjaer who lauded his young team.

Without the injured star duo of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba for the daunting trip to the Premier League leaders, United’s manager was in a positive mood ahead of their clash against Burnley on Wednesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

“We lost to Liverpool. A team that you all say are fantastic and we’ve been in the game until the last kick of the ball. For me, that’s strides forward,” Solskjaer said. “Of course we’re disappointed about losing the game. We don’t want to be behind them in the league. But there are signs there that we’re on the right track, definitely.”

Is Solskjaer’s positivity misplaced?

Some would argue that United were lucky that Liverpool’s finishing was lackluster and that is true but the Red Devils hung in there and should have equalized in the second half but Anthony Martial blazed over.

They were missing at least four or five players in key areas for the trip to United as Rashford, Pogba and Scott McTominay were out injured and they badly need another attacking midfielder (ahem, Bruno Fernandes) to help with their play in the final third.

Solskjaer is right, there were positives for United. Fred played extremely well in midfield and both Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka stood tall defensively out wide. But the main takeaway from their trip to Liverpool was that United were delighted to not lose by three or four goals. The gulf in class between the two teams was clear for all to see and although United are trying to sort out their disjointed and confused squad by signing young, talented players, they are so far off Liverpool it is scary.

Solskjaer: ‘Very many positives’ from Manchester United loss at Liverpool

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is trying his best to downplay the injury to Marcus Rashford.

Manchester United’s manager will be without his top scorer for 2-3 months after back surgery, and is already without playmaker Paul Pogba.

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All this after a sloppy 2-0 loss to rivals Liverpool and with news that a once-impending Bruno Fernandes transfer may not happen.

In fact, Sunday’s performance led many to believe United would have to pony up the extra money for Sporting Lisbon’s prolific attacking midfielder. Solskjaer isn’t read to say that.

From the BBC:

“We’ve had many injuries for big players this season. It’s just an unfortunate situation we’re in. We might look at some short-term deals as well that could take us through to the summer. We don’t desperately need a striker. If the right one is there and it fits for us (but) we’ve got players who are champing at the bit.”

As for the game, most of us saw United worked over until deep into the second half.

Solskjaer is not in that majority.

“The players gave us everything,” Solskjaer said. “Today we hung on a bit at the start of second half, but the last 25-30 mins we pressed them and pushed them back. I’m disappointed with conceding from a corner and with the last kick, but very many positives.”

Every time there’s a run of fixtures or tactics that give reason to believe Solskjaer might be growing toward something, he responds like this to a clear and obvious failure. If United can’t act in this transfer window, it can kiss the Top Four goodbye.

Transfer rumor roundup: Man Utd eyes $32M teen phenom; Bruno Fernandes latest

Transfer rumor roundup Manchester United
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Friday reports claimed Bruno Fernandes may be in the stands as a Manchester United player as soon as Sunday’s match with Liverpool.

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Then came claims that Sporting Lisbon had waffled on either price of payment plan for their megastar midfielder, throwing the deal back in the balance.

Sky Sports says the deal is far from dead, with Fernandes “desperate” to make the move to Old Trafford, one made by countrymen Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani before him.

Still, it’s all a bit wild after Friday, where United fans watched the Lisbon Derby just hoping for the player’s healthy passage in what was largely viewed as a farewell to the fans.

It still may be, but nothing’s coming easy for the Red Devils these days.

The Times claims that United is making a big investment in its long-term future with more than $30 million in the offing for a 16-year-old Championship star.

There would reportedly be an 18-month loan back to Birmingham City for Jude Bellingham, whose Championship side is lagging near the bottom of the table.

Bellingham doesn’t turn 17 until the summer and has already rung up 25 senior appearances with four goals and an assist for the Blues.

United’s Sunday rivals Liverpool are also eyeing a youngster, albeit one with less first team experience.

Pedro Brazao of Nice is 17 years old and being tracked by plenty of teams, according to RMC Sport, with Liverpool joining the fray.

The Portuguese youth international made his Ligue 1 debut off the bench in April, but has yet to hit the pitch this season. Nice isn’t exactly channeling goals, either, but Brazao is an exciting prospect.  Chalk this one as one for the future.

Manchester United triggers Bailly contract extension

Manchester United triggers Bailly contract extension
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Manchester United has picked up a two-year option on Eric Bailly‘s contract, according to Sky Sports.

The Red Devils now have the giant 25-year-old center back under wraps through the 2021/22 season.

Bailly is nearing full fitness after his latest injury setback, knee and ankle injuries costing him dozens of matches since arriving from Villarreal in 2016. He underwent knee surgery in late July.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

There’s little reason for United not to pick up the option, as Bailly could’ve left for free in the summer and the extension allows for a possible transfer fee.

That said, Bailly has been very good with healthy and in-form, especially in an exceptional debut season at Old Trafford. He has 34 caps for the Ivory Coast, and is nearing the prime age for a center back.

United visits Liverpool at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, and Bailly is not expected to play.

The center back may get a chance to get to know Bruno Fernandes, who is being tipped for a $77 million transfer. He likely won’t see Ashley Young, who’s arrived in Milan ahead of a transfer to Inter.