Clearly the best of the rest in the Premier League this season, in-form Burnley look for a sixth win on the bounce Thursday when they host Chelsea at Turf Moor knowing a victory could all but cement an unlikely adventure next season in the Europa League.
Prior to last season, Burnley's first two campaigns in the Premier League were one-and-done affairs as they were relegated. The Clarets (14-10-9) survived last term despite winning just three matches after the calendar turned to 2017 as they finished 16th on 40 points.
This season, however, Burnley are arguably the best story in the Premier League not named Manchester City as graft and a blue-collar work ethic that starts with manager Sean Dyche and filters throughout his side while sporting a total wage bill of less than £40 million have propeled the Clarets to an unlikely seventh in the table on 52 points.
"If you imagine the mentality to come out of a run of 11 games in this league without a win and then put five wins together, that takes a tough mindset,"Dyche told the team's official website after Saturday's 2-1 win over Leicester City. "That gritty determination is a marevllous thing and all wins are important for many different reasons, but especially that one (Saturday)."
Burnley are lurking just two points behind Arsenal, whom they play at the Emirates on May 6, which will also be three days after the Gunners play their second leg Europa League semifinal at Atletico Madrid. While sixth place for Arsenal is a no-man's land given their chase to return to the Champions League by winning the Europa League title, pipping Arsene Wenger's side for that spot could mean everything for Dyche and his.
By virtue of Man City's double of winning the Premier League and the Carabao Cup, the Europa League berth awarded to the cup winner reverts to the next-highest spot in the table, which would be sixth. That spot allows direct entry into Europa League group play.
Additionally, three of the four FA Cup semifinalists - Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea - are all in the top five of the table. UEFA confirmed Monday that if outsiders and relegation-threatened Southampton, currently at the top of the drop on 28 points, do not win England's oldest trophy, the seventh-place finisher would enter the Europa League at the second round qualifying stage.
Considering Burnley have not played in a European tournament since being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 1967 Fairs Cup over two legs by German side Eintrecht Frankfurt, the excitement around Lancashire has been growing with each successive win, and after Saturday's victory moved the Clarets nine points clear of the eighth-placed Foxes, that excitement has given way to giddiness over the prospects of playing on the continent.
You see, that fifth straight win Saturday marked the first time the Clarets achieved such a feat since the season after that run in the Fairs Cup.
"The aim at the start of the season was to stay in the Premier League. To be on the verge of getting a European spot now is a fantastic achievement," said defender Kevin Long, whose first Premier League goal in the ninth minute staked Burnley to a 2-0 lead, to the club's official website. "For the fans it's massive. You could see towards the end of the game the atmosphere was brilliant.
"They're all dreaming of European football and hopefully we can get that for them."
Chris Wood had staked the Clarets to a lead three minutes before Long struck, giving him a team-high 10 goals in all competitions. Five of those goals have come during this winning streak, with the New Zealand international failing to score only in the win over Watford.
Burnley, though, also feature a solid defence that has shipped just 35 goals in 36 matches. While Chelsea (18-6-9) breached it twice in the reverse fixture to start the season, the problem was the Pensioners had yielded three in the first half of a disastrous title defence start at home that saw defender Gary Cahill get a straight red card before the season was a quarter-hour old.
Sam Vokes had a brace around a goal by Stephen Ward as Burnley held out for a 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge. Some would argue it was a harbinger of things to come for the London side, who are seven points adrift of Tottenham Hotspur for the final Champions League spot with five matches left and expected to be on the search for a new manager next month with Antonio Conte all but certain to depart.
Chelsea prepped for their FA Cup semifinal versus Southampton at Wembley on Sunday by rallying from two down to beat the Saints 3-2 at St Mary's last Saturday. Substitute Olivier Giroud had a brace in an eight-minute span around a goal by Eden Hazard as the Blues shook off a sub-par opening 45 minutes.
"In the first half I was very disappointed for the way we were playing and the spirit we were showing in the game," Conte told Chelsea's official website. "In the second half we showed a great reaction, and I hope from now until the end to see this fire in the eyes of my players in every game."
Conte could be without defender Marcos Alonso, who may face a ban for his studs-up challenge on Shane Long in Saturday's victory that did not receive any discipline during the match.
Burnley have not done the double over Chelsea since the 1968-69 season when they were in the First Division, and they have not beaten the Pensioners at Turf Moor since a 3-0 win in Division Two in 1983.
Updated April 16, 2018