With the three-way battle for the title grabbing all the headlines, the fight for the fourth spot is not far behind either. The monopoly of the big four in the last season was close to be broken by Aston Villa, who seemed set for a first time Champions League berth at Arsenal’s expense, after more than half of the season had gone by. But Villa began dropping points towards the end, and Arsenal found themselves back in the familiar top four spot, with a good string of results during the same period. This season has thrown up more unexpected surprises, as Tottenham Hotspurs and a new look Manchester City have crashed the party; the attacking style of football showcased by these two sides have set alarm bells ringing in Liverpool and the Midlands. If the points table is anything to go by, the gap between these four clubs is very narrow, and all of them have equal chances to book the ticket to Europe’s most prestigious competition.
Tottenham Hotspurs: The Spurs have one of the most exciting attacking lineups in the league, but as is characteristic of the london outfit, they continue to blow hot and blow cold throughout the season. Most of their wins have come against the teams placed in the bottom half of the table, including a whopping 9-1 thumping of Wigan Athletic. However, they failed to prove their temperament in matches against the ‘Big Four’, and a double by Wolverhampton over them brought further disappointment. Creditably, the defense shows more stability than in previous seasons, with Vedran Corluka and Gareth Bale producing outstanding defensive performances in both full back positions, and Sebastian Bassong proving his worth in the central defensive role.
After Defoe and Crouch contributed most of Tottenham’s goals in the first half of the season, it was time for Roman Pavlyuchenko’s to prove his mettle. The Russian striker has struck a rich vein of form, scoring goals in his last four matches. The return of the Croatian wizard Luka Modric, combined with vital contributions by Niko Kranjcar and Tom Huddlestone, and the consistent performance of Wilson Palacios in the defensive midfield role, provides the White Hart Lane outfit a good opportunity to erase the stigma of being branded as perpetual underachievers. However, with games against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United on the trot still pending, the Spurs will find the going very tough for them.
Players to watch: Luka Modric, Roman Pavlyuchenko,Tom Huddleston
Form guide: DLDWWW
Upcoming matches: Blackburn(H), Stoke(A), Portsmouth(H), Sunderland(A), Arsenal(H)
Manchester City: The blue side of Manchester announced their intentions to take on the Big Four this season, with their Arab owners facilitating big money signings in Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Roque Santa Cruz, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry during the summer transfer window. They have one of the best lineups on paper, and big wins against Arsenal and Chelsea seemed to justify their quality. However, despite losing the least number of games among all the sides, a slew of draws cost the Citizens vital points, which eventually led to Mark Hughes’ acrimonious sacking. Roberto Mancini’s appointment as the caretaker seems to have stemmed the rot to some extent, with his side securing six wins, two draws and two losses in all league matches so far, under him.
This season’s revelation has been Craig Bellamy. The Welshman appears to have reserved his best performances for the Eastlands outfit. He played a significant role in the matches against Arsenal, Chelsea and arch rivals Manchester United, helping his club defeat the first two; only a last gasp winner by Michael Owen undid his fantastic performance in the derby match. With Tevez providing the ideal foil, the striking duo will have a huge say in Citeh’s progress.
Adebayor has suffered an indifferent form, and will face a hostile reception when he returns to the Emirates in April, after his provocative goal celebration against his old team. Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong have marshaled the midfield efficiently, with Stephen Ireland, Martin Petrov and Shaun Wright-Phillips providing the creativity. However, Toure and Lescott have to get their act right and ensure an increase in the goal difference, as it could have a huge say in the club’s position when the season goes down the wire. Even if they do not make it to the top four this time, they will be considered the biggest threat in the next season, once the players have settled down.
Players to watch: Craig Bellamy, Carlos Tevez, Nigel De Jong
Form guide: WDDDL
Upcoming matches: Sunderland(A), Fulham(A), Everton(H), Wigan(H), Burnley(A)
Liverpool: This season has not been too kind to the Merseysiders, who failed to reproduce the kind of form that made them a strong title contender last season. It all began with the sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, and the void left by him was taken up by Lucas Leiva, who was understandably no match for the Spaniard. The duo of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard almost singlehandedly won the title for Liverpool last year, but the striker has been beset by injuries this time, and was even forced to play in certain matches without full fitness; his replacement, David Ngog, was not as profilic, and this only served to increase the pressure on captain Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt to secure points for the Reds. However, they made up for lost ground in the first half of the season, winning all six home games since the home loss against Arsenal.
Liverpool’s performance this season has been marred by inconsistency. They defeated only Manchester United among the Big Four, and their away form has been rather woeful. Fingers are pointed at the manager, Rafa Benitez, for his lack of foresight on key players being injured, his failure to improve the quality of the bench , and his continued faith in Lucas, Babel and Ngog, all of whom are unreliable to some extent. Alberto Aquilani, signed as a replacement for Alonso, has featured only in nine league games so far, most of them off the bench; Maxi Rodriguez’s signing does not seem to add extra value to the team’s credentials. In spite of all the negativity surrounding the club, the Scousers possess the grit and determination to claw back to where they belong; the return of Benayoun, Torres and Glen Johnson from injury will boost their hopes. All they need to do is to stay tight, and grind out as many wins as possible in the upcoming fixtures, and have all first team players fit at the same time.
Players to watch: Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun, Steven Gerrard
Form guide: WLWDWW
Upcoming matches: Portsmouth(H),Man Utd(A), Sunderland(H), Birmingham(A),Fulham(H)
Aston Villa: This season, Villa’s most consistent player has been none other than James Milner. The Englishman has been one of the team’s most influential players from the outset; his marauding runs down the wings, his inch-perfect crosses and his back tracking abilities earned him the admiration of the pundits and even Capello himself. Gareth Barry’s absence was not felt in any way, as Stiliyan Petrov, Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo Coker toiled hard in the center of the field. A solid center back partnership of Richard Dunne and James Collins, an improved Stephen Warnock at left back, and the ever reliable Brad Friedel between the goal posts, have all served to ensure that Aston Villa has conceded the least number of goals in the league. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stuart Downing and Ashley Young, together with either of John Carew or Emile Heskey, provide the attacking dimension, with Milner joining in the fray.
Last season, the Villans gave the Gunners a run for their money, and nearly secured the fourth spot, before a small squad size factored in their downward spiral, finishing at sixth position below Everton. This season, Martin O’Neill has not learnt from his lessons either, and the bench strength of the team has not seen a significant improvement yet. An injury to either of Milner, Young or Agbonlahor will stifle the creative angle of the team’s strategy, and could inflict a serious blow to the team’s pursuit for the elusive Champions League spot. Moreover, they have dropped a lot of points against the mid table and lower placed teams, which puts them in the same situation as Manchester City. If however, they are lucky not to lose many first team players to injury, and can play with the same intensity week in and week out, a deserved fourth spot finish will help erase the scars of the last season’s misfortunes.
Players to watch: James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor, John Carew
Form guide: DDWWLW
Upcoming matches: Stoke(A), Wigan(A), Wolves(H), Sunderland(H),Chelsea(A)
Up till last month, Everton would not have been considered in the race for the fourth spot. The Toffees have had a very slow start to the season, beginning with a 6-1 demolition at the hands of the Gunners at Goodison Park, and were struggling to find their rhythm without the injured Mikel Arteta. But of late, an excellent draw against Arsenal at Emirates, followed by back to back wins against Chelsea and Manchester United, and a 5-1 thumping over Hull City on Sunday have marked a revival of fortunes for them. However, they still have a lot of ground to cover, and can at best end up at sixth or seventh spot, depending on if the other contenders for the fourth spot drops points.