It’s that time of the year, when men and their sons gather all drinks and snacks and spend their time on the couch with eyes glued to the TV, rooting for their favorite football club; that time of the year when tabloids and football websites alike are rife with speculation and gossip and fabricated articles about transfer deals, when players switch clubs, when fans shell out huge sums of money on the latest team jerseys and other football merchandise, and finally when those annoying transfer sagas – the Fabregas, Maicon and Ashley Cole ones in particular – are done and dusted. True followers of the Barclays Premier League prepare themselves for yet another exciting season, and the follow-up to the season start is inevitably punctuated with predictions and hunches about which clubs will make the cut in the top four, and who is likely to end up as champions next year.
Last season, the monopoly of the ‘Big Four’ was broken by Tottenham, who claimed the final Champions League spot at the expense of Liverpool. Manchester City were also in contention for the top four berth, but a series of draws curtailed their chances. However, the final league standings clearly hints at the ever increasing competitiveness of the Premier League, with the likes of Villa, Everton and Fulham staking their claims to the top level of European football. Liverpool’s ouster could be considered as a mere aberration, as a change of guard to the guidance of the more reliable and affable Roy Hodgson, backed by the signing of Joe Cole and the successful retention of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, could provide the Merseyside club the required impetus to reclaim their Champions League participation tag.
Here’s a summary of the teams outside the Big Four, which are capable of surmounting a challenge for the coveted fourth spot or even higher, given the unpredictable nature of the beautiful game.
Last season standing: Fourth
Chances of breaking into top 4: Good
With the arrival of Harry Redknapp in 2008, the White Hart Lane outfit have become a significantly improved side, a far cry from the side which was often let down by frequent bouts of inconsistency in the preceding years. Their first ever entry into Champions League football last season, fending off the likes of Manchester City and Aston Villa, is a testament to Redknapp’s tactical acumen and the sense of solidarity that he has inculcated in the players. The emergence of Gareth Bale as a world class left winger, the revelation of players like Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Tom Huddlestone and Wilson Palacios, and Spurs’ first ever victory over bitter rivals Arsenal since 1999 were some of the huge positives that the London team can draw from last season.
This summer has not witnessed much activity on the transfer front, but Spurs have enough firepower in their armory to contest for the Big Four tag. Redknapp has retained all of the first teamers, and has strong bench strength to complement in each department. Brazilian midfielder Sandro has been signed from Internacional, but he is not likely to break into the first team soon. Jermaine Jenas and David Bentley have been overshadowed by the likes of Modric, Kranjcar and Huddlestone, but Harry intends to retain them as capable backups. As long as Ledley King remains fit, the defense is in capable hands.
‘Arry – A big thumbs up for last season!
Jermaine Defoe is confident Spurs could perform well in the big stage, but they have been untested at the pinnacle of European football, and the clash of fixtures after the January window will wear down the squad should they proceed to the final rounds of the Champions League. As far as the Premier League is concerned, they will need to excel against the top eight teams to continue their brilliant streak from last season; the going has just gotten tougher, but fans of the Lilies can expect another good year for the club.
Last season standing: Fifth
Chances of breaking into top 4: Above Average
A takeover by Arabs last season saw Manchester City become the one of the richest clubs in the world. The supposedly endless flow of cash from the Sheikh’s coffers was enough to entice a host of Premier League stars from other clubs, but eventually the blue side of Manchester failed to live up to the hype, losing out to Spurs in the race for the fourth spot. Instead of looking at the root cause of their failure and getting rid of the dead wood, they sought to bring in further star players , promising them astronomical wages and a ‘guarantee’ to play in the Champions League next year. The result – an ‘embarrassment of riches’ for each department, with overpaid players vying for the same spot. With extra players in the striking and midfield department, Mancini will be having a hard time dealing with dressing room egos, and the prospect of choosing the starting XI from the current bunch could be a potential terrifying experience for the Italian.
Among the new signees, Jerome Boateng and Vincent Kolarov can be deemed to be relevant deals. David Villa has performed well for Valencia, but the Premier League is at a much higher level in terms of competitiveness and physical toughness and could prove difficult for the winger. Yaya Toure commands respect, but his 2,00,00£ weekly wages does not do justice to his age and brand value; he earns even more than Ronaldo and Messi! There is also the question of what Mancini will do with Vieira and Nigel De Jong, players in a similar mold as Toure. Strikers Bellamy, Santa Cruz and Adebayor face uncertainity over their places with the imminent signing of yet another striker in Mario Balotelli; Adebayor reportedly issued a ‘come and get me’ plea to Juventus , but Citeh have declined any reports of selling the Togolese. The biggest challenge facing the club is the introduction of the 25 man squad size limit, which must include at least eight home-grown players. However, they are unwilling to let players go unless a sizeable bid is offered, in order to recover a minor part of the cash wasted on signings in the last one year; players like Robinho, Ireland and Wright-Phillips have become surplus to requirements.
“Is 37 more or less than 25? Drat, I have forgotten my math!”
The main problems for Manchester City are more internal than external. The announcement of the final 25 players will lead to disillusionment for those left out, and the players are yet to function as a team on the field; add to it the increasingly competitive nature of the league and the high expectations from the Eastlands crowd. Mancini should consider himself lucky if he doesn’t get sacked before the season ends. However, if he manages to get the right combination and enable the players to gel with each other, then Citeh will be a force to reckon with.
Last season standing: Sixth
Chances of breaking into top 4: slim
Aston Villa were unable to threaten the position of the Big Four last season, despite giving a mighty scare to the Gunners two seasons ago. This can be attributed to one thing, something which Martin O’Neil has failed to address time and again – a small squad size and the lack of quality on the bench. When it comes to maintaining consistency in the league, the Villans always fall short; Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Richard Dunne and James Milner are proven performers on the field, but there is no able replacement for any of them in case they get injured or suspended.
James Milner was the most outstanding player for the club, and cash-laden Manchester City have already offered a bid to bring him to Eastlands. Should this transfer materialize, it will only be a step backwards for the club, and Aston Villa must take all necessary measures to retain the services of the England winger. The summer transfer window has been quiet for the Birmingham based club, with the board announcing a policy of sell-and—buy for this shopping window, a move which likely caused Martin O’Neil to shockingly resign as the manager of the Midlands club, just five days before the outset of the Premier League.
The unexpected departure of Villa’s manager of four seasons has thrown the club into the doldrums, and has only served to make the Milner deal more imminent. The season looks rather bleak for the men in claret and blue. Their best hope is to cling on to the core players for this season, and to pray for a suitable choice for the managerial post, someone who can bring moderate success to the club (read a top-eight finish). The team squad ticks all the boxes for the new rules which come into effect from this season onwards, which is the only solace for Villa fans, since it puts the club on a slightly even keel with Tottenham and Manchester City.
Turbulent times ahead for Villa after O’Neil’s departure
Last season standing: Eighth
Chances of breaking into top 4: slim
Everton have always proved to be a tough nut to crack, even for the so-called Big teams. However, like Aston Villa, they suffer from a small squad size, and are unable to string together a good run of results without encountering hiccups on the way. David Moyes possesses a keen eye for talent and has all the qualities to construct a winning team, but the tight transfer budget gives him to choice but to buy players within the available price range. However, the Merseyside club has benefitted from players emerging through their youth academy, the most notable being the exciting English midfielder Jack Rodwell. The new rules in the Premier League gives Moyes the best chance to make use of the upcoming talent through the ranks, on the bench at least.
Last season, Mikel Arteta was ruled out for most of the games; the Toffees missed his flair and creativity, and the burden fell on Tim Cahill and loanee Landon Donovan to score Everton’s goals. The lack of a good striker or goal poacher upfront has been the real culprit behind their not so impressive goal scoring record, and Yakubu is well known for his profligacy in front of goal. The signing of Beckford from Leeds United seems to be Moyes’ solution to this problem, but it remains to be seen how he will fare at the top flight. Everton have considered resigning Donovan on loan for one more season, but the move could cost them a lot.
Arteta – the key to Everton’s run
Moyes’ first priority is to hold on to the key players, and has succeeded to some extent; Arteta signed a contract extension, while Arsenal’s bids for Jagielka were turned down. Pienaar, who is yet to extend his contract with the Toffees, is being courted by Aston Villa. As long as these players remain committed to the club, Everton will continue to end up in the top eight; but unless quality players are brought in to play in the striking department, the Big 4 spot will always remain out of reach. Their best chances of making a mark in the league would be in the away games, where their new pink jersey could cause partial blindness to opposition players.
Apart from the four clubs discussed above, we could have a look at Birmingham and Fulham. The Craven Cottage outfit was the surprise of the season last time, going all the way to the UEFA cup finals only to lose to Diego Forlan’s Athletico Madrid. Given the quality and size of the squad at Hodgson’s disposal, it’s an achievement of sorts; with players of the caliber of Torres, Gerrard and Joe Cole now under his guidance, there are hopes of a renaissance for the Anfield faithful. Fulham have signed ex-Manchester City manager Mark Hughes as his replacement, and he could certainly bring the same level of success to the London club; however, it’s clear that Fulham will have a lot of catching up to do, as the gulf in overall quality between the club and the likes of Everton and Villa is still evident. The signing of Philippe Senderos doesn’t add much improvement to the defense, but he can be a decent backup. Mark Hughes has confirmed his intent to hijack Spurs’ bid for Bellamy though, which would be a good deal should the Welshman want to move away from Eastlands.
Birmingham have come back strongly after being promoted from the Coca Cola championship last season, finishing at a credible ninth place in the League standings. Like other mid-table clubs, they compensate for the apparent lack of technical quality with spirited performances and a typical English game of hard tackling and long balls. Alex McLeish’s signing of the towering Serbian Nikola Zigic has affirmed his intentions to fit aerial strategies into the game plan, which could prove to be pivotal against teams like Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, whose defense is suspect in set pieces. The Blues are capable of breaking into the top eight this time around, which will make for an engaging tussle for the UEFA spots.
This season promises to be as entertaining and thrilling as the last one. Will Liverpool’s claim to Champions League qualification be usurped once again? Will Tottenham be able to replicate their form of last season and prove that they are not one-season wonders? Will Manchester City somehow find a way out of the mess they put themselves in, and send a strong message to the Big Four? Can Aston Villa and Everton emerge out of the shadows and deliver improved performances like Tottenham? It’s a shame that football fans will have to wait for the season to conclude next year, to know what the answers to these questions are!