In the summer of 2009, the usual predictions were cast on the aspirations of clubs in the Barclays Premier League. The Big Four’s greatest threat was said to come from Manchester City, Tottenham and maybe Aston Villa and Everton, while the club most likely to drop out of the Big Four was Manchester United or Arsenal.
Come last week of November, 3 months into the campaign and the predictions are mostly spot on. Tottenham are leading the race to challenge for the coveted 4th spot, with Manchester City and Aston Villa close behind. Chelsea, as expected, are top of the table.
But instead of United or Arsenal – two clubs who ‘failed’ to strengthen over the summer, are far more secure than Liverpool, the club expected to ‘challenge’ for the title.
In fact on current evidence, Liverpool – 13 points off the table leaders and 5 points off 4th placed Tottenham – need to improve massively to even qualify for the Champions League next season.
Liverpool, City and Villa are separated by a point each, and both Arsenal and Tottenham are just 3 points ahead, so it’s far from settled. What seems likely is that Arsenal, despite the odd hiccup, are unlikely to succumb to a free-for-all for 3rd / 4th and instead will consolidate their position over the next 2 months.
Let’s look at each of the 4 clubs likely to make a play for the last Champions League slot – and then you can make your own predictions at the end.
Rafa Benitez – correctly – states that once the injured players are back, Liverpool would be a much stronger unit and will start winning more games. The truth is that the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa have shown weaknesses in recent years when it comes to maintaining a challenge at the top of the table – and that will be the key for Liverpool moving into a key passage of play in December, where a good run of form could see them shoot back up the table.
But to make good on their promise, Liverpool have to stop giving away points away from home – they have lost 4 of 6 away games this season. If they end up losing 12 of 19 away games this season, or even 10, they’ll struggle to qualify for Europe.
A 9-1 win taken out of context is a wonderful, record-breaking achievement. Considering that it comes in the same season where Spurs lost to Arsenal 3-0, Spurs are still a work in progress albeit one with great potential.
Their Achilles heel is their defense, and apart from the fact that they are terrible at defending away from home, they also need to make sure that they either groom another central defender from the youth ranks or bring someone in as backup to the injury-prone duo of Woodgate and King. It’ll be interesting to see who Harry buys in January (especially if Pavlyuchenko is to go and Harry will have cash to spend).
Need to start turning draws into wins, both home and away. On paper they have a very strong squad but they have failed to gel together defensively, something that will worry Mark Hughes quite a bit.
Buying another center-back – especially after spending so much money on Toure and Lescott – seems silly, so City’s best bet at this point is to work on improving what they have and sort out what to do with Robinho. An unhappy player – especially one with a history of creating trouble if he doesn’t want to stay at the club – will hold them back.
Qualification for Europe – even if its the Europa League – will be success for City. If it means getting shot of Robinho and bringing in squad reinforcements elsewhere, why not?
Take out their away win against Liverpool and Villa’s away record is fairly poor, and that’s unfortunate given how strong the team are on the counter. They could only draw against Burnley on the weekend and while some will argue that Burnley have already given plenty of teams trouble at home, draws for Villa will end up hurting them in the end.
Liverpool, and to a certain extent City and Spurs, have shown the strength to turn up their games against the Big Three. Villa haven’t shown that resolve yet, and this makes their games against the rest of the league that much more important.
The season has passed the one-third mark, and already we’ve seen one team fall out of the title race. Will we see one of these four teams fall out of the race for the Champions League spot as well? Let us know your thoughts below.
Photos from Tottenahm-Wigan