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Football: Outsiders pushing for Champions League spots

West Ham face Wolves in the Premier League on Sunday and both clubs remain in the hunt for a top-four finish.

David Moyes led the Hammers to an impressive sixth-placed finish in the league last season and they are keeping pace with Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification.

Wolves have also exceeded expectations in Bruno Lage's first season in charge. Wanderers conceded two late goals to lose 2-1 at Arsenal on Thursday night but had they won that game they would have moved up to fifth in the table.

Sunday's clash at the London Stadium is a crucial fixture for both clubs as they bid to break the stranglehold the Premier League's 'big six' have had over the Champions League places.

Between them, United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool have dominated the battle for the top four in the past two decades.

Leicester are the only other English club to play in the Champions League group stage since Newcastle featured in the 2002/03 edition and that statistic demonstrates the task facing top-four wannabes West Ham and Wolves.

The Hammers started the campaign determined to prove that last term's top-six finish was no fluke and Moyes's entertainers beat Newcastle 4-2 and Leicester 4-1 in their first two games.

Memorable home wins over Tottenham (1-0), Liverpool (3-2) and Chelsea (3-2) followed before Christmas although West Ham's form has dropped off a little recently, with a 1-0 victory over struggling Watford the only win in their last five outings.

Jarrod Bowen has been the star of the show, contributing eight goals and eight assists in the league and being tipped for an England call-up, although he and his fellow forwards can expect a tough 90 minutes against the Wolves defence.

Lage's Molineux career began with 1-0 defeats to Leicester, Spurs and Manchester United but Wolves have lost only five of their last 20 league fixtures, and two of those were 1-0 losses to title-chasing City and Liverpool.

Wolves's outstanding defensive record meant that this week's late collapse at Arsenal was a major shock and it was the first time in 46 top-flight games they had lost a league game after scoring the first goal.

West Ham are 21/20 for victory on Sunday although they can expect a response from 14/5 visitors Wolves, who have shown great character and discipline this season.

Lage's plans have often been disrupted by injuries but the squad looks in good shape for the run-in with Hwang Hee-Chan, who scored the opener at Arsenal, fit again and long-term absentees Jonny and Pedro Neto also returning to action.

Wolves's push for an unlikely top-four finish is remarkable considering that they still average less than a goal per game in the league and eight of their 12 wins have been by a 1-0 or a 2-1 margin – available to back at 9/1 and 14/1 respectively on Sunday.

West Ham, who are looking forward to next month's Europa League last-16 tie against Sevilla, have been equally competitive and seven of their eight league defeats this season were by a one-goal margin, including November's 1-0 defeat at Molineux.

The Hammers and Wolves are not the only surprise packages dreaming of a Champions League spot in Europe's top leagues. Here are some of the other clubs punching above their weight:

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Primera Liga: Real Betis mixing in good company

The Seville derby is one of Europe's fiercest rivalries and Sunday's clash between Sevilla and Real Betis should be a cracker as the teams start the weekend in second and third place in the Primera Liga.

Betis, for so long overshadowed by their illustrious neighbours, are enjoying a terrific campaign, reaching the last 16 of the Europa League and establishing a 2-1 first-leg lead over Rayo Vallecano in their Copa del Rey semi-final tie.

A top-four finish would be a huge achievement for former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini and his side, especially as just two seasons ago Betis finished 15th with 41 points – five fewer than they have amassed in their first 25 matches this term.

Experienced coach Pellegrini won't be getting carried away as La Liga powerhouses Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are not far behind in the race for Champions League qualification but victory for 23/10 Betis in Sunday's derby against Sevilla would boost their hopes of a first top-four finish since 2005. You can follow the action via our European Soccer Live Streaming Highlights.

Ligue 1: Strasbourg soaring under Stephan

Lille proved last season that dreams can come true in Ligue 1, pipping mighty PSG to the title, and this term Strasbourg are pushing for an unlikely top-three finish.

Since returning to the French top flight in 2017/18, the Alsace side have finished 15th, 11th, 10th and 15th but they kicked off this weekend in fourth place, behind runaway leaders PSG, Marseille and Nice and looking down on the likes of Lyon, Monaco and champions Lille.

It is only 10 years since off-field turmoil left Strasbourg languishing in the fifth division yet now they have genuine aspirations of breaking into the top three and qualifying for the Champions League.

Manager Julien Stephan led former club Rennes into Europe's top club competition for the first time in their history and it would be an amazing tale if he repeated the feat at Strasbourg.

Bundesliga: Freiburg a force to be reckoned with

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund look nailed on to fill the top two places in the Bundesliga but the race for European qualification is building to a thrilling climax.

At the start of this round of fixtures just three points separated fourth-placed RB Leipzig from Union Berlin in ninth, with Cologne and Mainz, whose former managers include Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, among the teams flying high.

Third-placed Bayer Leverkusen and in-form Leipzig are the leading contenders to complete the top four but Freiburg should not be taken lightly after a superb campaign under long-serving coach Christian Streich.

They were the last unbeaten team in the Bundesliga before a 2-1 defeat at Bayern in their 11th league fixture and produced an astonishing performance at Borussia Monchengladbach in December, winning 6-0 with all six goals coming in the first 39 minutes – not bad for a team who finished 10th, eighth, 13th and 15th in the past four seasons.

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