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Can Manchester City, Blackburn, Portsmouth or Newcastle United pip Liverpool to join Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United at the top?



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We’re through the first two months of the Premier League season, and things are beginning to shake out at the top.

Arsenal has put last season’s underachieving, injury-ravaged campaign behind them, and despite the departure of Thierry Henry to Barcelona, have hit the ground running, with eight wins and two draws in ten matches thus far.

Manchester United got off to a slow start, and even after overcoming it, had trouble scoring goals. But, that problem appears to be fixed, as United has poured in 16 goals in their last four matches. Their only real hiccup is a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City, which came when they were stumbling along.

Chelsea got off to a slow start as well, which led to the departure of Jose Mourinho, but it’s back to business as usual, judging by their last few results, including a 6-0 thrashing of Manchester City over the weekend.

It seems pretty clear that those three will be battling it out until season’s end.

But, that fourth spot appears to be very much up for grabs. Judging by recent history, it’s Liverpool’s to lose, but there are several teams who are going to be pushing for that final Champions League spot, and maybe, just maybe, challenge the top three for a while.

Liverpool has (surprisingly) scraped out points in all ten of their league matches thus far, but five of those results have been draws. Nine of their league goals have come past the 70th minute, which has delivered four of their five league wins, and earned them a draw in another. But, on the flip side, they’ve returned the favor to their opponents as well. It’s a 90+ minute game, guys.

Manchester City has gotten off to a great start under Sven-Goran Eriksson, but that demolition at the hands of Chelsea shows that they still have quite a ways to go. But, there’s a lot of potential. Manchester City is getting immediate contributions from summer transfers like Martin Petrov (three goals) and Brazilian international Elano Blumer (four goals), and have a solid mix of young, developing talent (Micah Richards, Michael Johnson) and experience (Richard Dunne and Didi Hamann), which will make them intriguing to watch as the season progresses. With the success that Eriksson has had on club level, it won’t be a surprise to see Manchester City at a lofty position at season’s end.

One club to watch out for is Blackburn, who has dropped only one match (1-0 to Portsmouth). Mark Hughes‘ Blackburn Rovers are unbeaten away from home, and along with winning their last four league matches (and six overall), they have draws against Arsenal and Chelsea.

Those three seem the most likely to join the Big Three, though Portsmouth and Newcastle could also make a run. Harry Redknapp has brought excitement back to Fratton Park, in his second stint in charge, as shown by their stunning 7-4 victory over Reading in September. Redknapp loves his African forwards, and he’s got a trio in Benjani (seven goals), Kanu (three goals), and up-and-coming summer import John Utaka (two goals), who will give Portsmouth a great chance to qualify for Europe, and annoy quite a few keepers this season. But, their chances may be affected by next January’s African Cup of Nations, as they will lose Kanu, Utaka, and Ghanian midfielder Sulley Muntari to the competition.

And, Newcastle, if they could develop some consistency, the Champions League spot that Sam Allardyce was unable to reach with his best efforts at Bolton could finally be achievable with Newcastle United.

The question for not only the top three, but for the wannabe contenders is not about the talent that each team has, but if they have both the depth and the right attitude to handle all that come with the long season, from injuries, streaks, and all of the other highs and lows that inevitably come with a long season.

It would be nice to see that fourth team challenge Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea, at least for the better part of the season, just to make the title race a little more compelling. But if that doesn’t happen, the race for that fourth spot should turn out to be plenty worth watching.

If I was to pick the club that would be the favorite for that fourth Champions League spot, and to potentially give the Big Three some trouble, it’d be easy to go with Liverpool, because they’re usually there. And, they may well end up being there, if they can overcome themselves.

But, there’s a very good possibility that there could be two Manchester sides in the Champions League draw next summer. That defeat at the hands of Chelsea might be just a bump in the road for City, because with the history that Eriksson has of being able make a positive impact quickly (IFK Goteborg, Benfica, Lazio, England), you can only expect the same with him in Manchester.

There’s sure to be many a twist and turn before it’s all said and done, but if I turn out to be right, I like my steaks well done, and my potatoes mashed.