To older football fans, the idea of the race for fourth place being as interesting, or as important, as the title chase or the relegation dogfight is fundamentally absurd. After all, as Bill Shankly once said “if you are first you are first, if you are second you are nowhere”.
But this season one of the intriguing of battles is shaping up as the dominance of the media-styled “Big Four” is once again threatened by a cluster of “Second tier” clubs, with Manchester City, Everton & Aston Villa at the head of the queue. Lord only knows what Shankly would make of his old side playing for the final “also-ran” slot in the table.
It shouldn’t be like this of course, Fernando Torres’ arrival was supposed to have been enough to give Liverpool the potency to launch a genuine title challenge, after well over ten years of threatening as much. But turmoil on and off the pitch over the last few months has seen Rafa Benitez’s side slip well behind the top three in the title race, and they now sit slap bang in the middle of a dogfight for that final Champions League qualifying spot, two points behind their Merseyside neighbours Everton (albeit with a game in hand).
Benitez’s side have not won in the Premier League since a late win over Derby on Boxing Day, and have been forced to watch the gap to 1st widen, and the gap to 5th evaporate. They have the best squad of the European challengers of course, but their home form- just four wins from eleven games- is a worry, and with captain Steven Gerrard admitting that an off-the-field situation that is still a long way from being resolved is affecting the players’, and away games at Chelsea, Arsenal & Manchester Utd all to come, it could get worse before it gets better at Anfield.
Now, if Everton’s appearance in the Champions League race is not too much of a surprise- after all, they did manage to usurp their Red rivals for 4th place in 2005- the sight of Sven Goran Eriksson’s hastily-assembled Manchester City side and Martin O’Neill’s perennially under-achieving Villa team challenging for a place at Europe’s top table will raise more than a few eyebrows.
After all, Tottenham have occupied 5th spot in the previous two seasons, and spent big again this summer on Darren Bent, Younes Kaboul & Gareth Bale, whilst Sam Allardyce was expected to turn Newcastle into European contenders just the way he had done with Bolton.
Manchester City on the other hand appointed a manager who the media would have us believe is incompetent at best, who then assembled a team of players in little more than a fortnight, whilst Aston Villa have one of the smallest squads in the league (they don’t actually possess a specialist right back would you believe), and a recent history of mediocrity in the league. But both Eriksson and O’Neill (along with Moyes) have managed to get their sides playing in an effective and consistent way, and they are up there on merit. If Benitez had managed to get half as much from his players this season, it would be Chelsea looking over their shoulders and not Liverpool.
Everton have steadily and sensibly built a fine side for a manager who at another club, Newcastle say, would have probably found himself out of work inside his first two years. But Bill Kenwright resisted the itch in his trigger finger when Everton were finishing 17th in 2004 and is being rewarded nicely.
David Moyes has recruited shrewdly from the lower leagues- Tim Cahill, Joleon Lescott, Andy Johnson & Phil Jagielka all play vital roles, and when he has been given money to spend he has managed to use it wisely more often than not (for every James Beattie there is an Arteta, Lescott & Cahill to balance against).
He has also managed to establish a side that has a clear idea of how to play and how to beat teams, whether by outplaying them or outbattling them. The impressive Tim Howard marshals a solid, pacy defence is the foundation, with Moyes using either the powerful Yakubu or the pacy Johnson as a lone striker, supported by the energy and goals of Cahill, Leon Osman, Arteta & the excellent loanee Steven Pienaar. And with the under-rated Lee Carsley performing the shielding role for which players like Claude Makelele, Javier Mascherano & Didi Hamann receive so much praise for, Everton are both hard to break down, and an effective attacking threat.
Of course there are weaknesses, Tony Hibbert is the obvious one, whilst the absence of Pienaar, Yobo & Yakubu on international duty will no doubt stretch the squad, but Everton are a team in form and are in with a realistic shout for ending the season as top dogs on Merseyside. Just don’t tell Shanks.
Manchester City’s manager may well have come up short at international level, although having been subjected to the reign of Steve McClaren since then England fans’ opinions on Mr Eriksson’s coaching methods have softened somewhat, but as a club manager he has a track record of assembling strong, successful sides.
He was ridiculed in August for saying he had only seen videos of some of his new signings. His bulk-buy policy was never going to be enough to transform City, said the experts. Well it’s January 23rd and Sven has his side sitting in 7th spot, two points adrift of the top four, and having won more home games than both Chelsea & Liverpool. The questionable signings have turned out to be more good than bad, arguably Javier Garrido is the only one of Eriksson’s summer buys who has struggled to adapt, and the softly spoken Swede has a nucleus of good young talent- the likes of Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Nedem Onohua, Vedran Corluka, Michael Johnson, Stephen Ireland, Gelson Fernandes, Valeriy Bojinov-, as well as competitive backing from his chairman, at his disposal.
They may have lost momentum in recent weeks, and their away form is still in need of some improvement, but Eriksson’s side are tough to beat at Eastlands, and with further strengthening expected before the end of the transfer window, they may well find a second wind to challenge for Europe.
The other surprise package in the top six is Martin O’Neill’s fast-improving Aston Villa, who assumed their spot in the UEFA Cup slots last night following a 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Anfield. O’Neill is a manager with a lot of fans in the game, his time at Leicester & Celtic having earned him enough stock for his name to be consistently linked with top jobs from Manchester United to England. But even with the likeable O’Neill at the helm, few pre-season predictors would have called Villa’s league position at this stage. Villa have a very small squad for a top half club, but O’Neill has managed to blend youth with experience and establish a side that can compete with any side on their day (they had already taken four points off Chelsea this season before Monday’s draw at Anfield), and his side are the most prolific in the league when it comes to set pieces.
Using the raw pace and direct running of Ashley Young & Gabriel Agbonlahor, Villa can stretch teams in wide areas and with a midfield containing Gareth Barry, Nigel Reo-Coker & Stilyan Petrov, few teams are able to over-run them in the centre of the park, whilst the resurgent Martin Laursen offers not just defensive stability alongside the highly-rated Curtis Davies, but a potent goal threat- 6 League goals already this season for the towering Dane.
The drawback in having a small squad of course is injuries, losing Barry, Young, Laursen or Agbonlahor would leave a big hole for example, but with O’Neill having got his side playing with a freedom and consistency lacking in many a previous year, Villa fans will be optimistic they can ride the momentum they have built up and finish the season in a European position. And wouldn’t that be good for a club minus a right back.
Who do you think will win the race for 4th place?