Shane Murphy assesses the challengers for that ever-lucrative fourth Champions League spot.
The start of another Premiership season brings the inevitable question of whether anyone can end the dominance of the Big Four and secure a coveted Champions League qualifying spot. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool have more or less dominated the top four since the League’s inception. Predictions on which club might achieve this include the usual cast of Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, who have been hovering around fourth spot for the past few seasons.
It is Manchester City, however, who might provide the sternest challenge. After spending big this summer, the Citizens have put in an impressive start to the season, winning their first four games. Despite narrowly losing in a nail-biting derby the weekend before last, the manner of City’s defeat to their illustrious neighbours suggests that the men in sky blue can last the pace of a gruelling Premier League season. Despite having been decisively outplayed for much of the fixture, the game was still deadlocked at 3-3 in injury time, and probably would have ended this way had it not been for some debatable timekeeping.
Some canny signings at the start of the season espoused by the imperious Shay Given, combined with big names like Carlos Tevez, have turned City into formidable opponents. The fact that they were without two of their first team strikers, Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor, and still scored three against an in-form United side at home, highlights the strength their squad possesses.
Unlike last year, Tottenham have also had an impressive start to the season, winning their opening four fixtures. Despite having been second best to Chelsea in the recent derby, and being humbled by a ten-man Manchester United at home – a pair of results that would rock the confidence of any squad – their 5-0 drubbing of Burnley should banish any doubts that Spurs can maintain a fight for Champions League entry. However, the schizophrenic form of captain Robbie Keane – scoring four one week and none for a month afterward – suggests that Spurs may be bound for Europa League football next season.
Everton’s start to the season has been disappointing and much of their campaign will depend on the form and fitness of Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill. The absence of Arteta is one of the key factors that explain their current poor form. However, with Arteta still on the sidelines, they will struggle with the loss of their creatively influential playmaker. Having also lost Joleon Lescott to Manchester City, and lacking the strength in depth that City possess, Everton will struggle to challenge.
Aston Villa could be City’s biggest challengers for the coveted fourth spot. After a win over bitter rivals Birmingham, Villa seem to have gotten their season back on track after a wobbly start. However doubts persist, and last weekend’s scrappy loss to Blackburn does not augur well. The mood in the Villa camp has been soured by a training ground bust up between manager Martin O’Neill and Nigel Reo-Coker.
Although Villa possesses a wealthy owner in American billionaire Randy Lerner, the tycoon seems unwilling to part with his fortune, leaving O’Neill hamstrung in the transfer market. Villa’s loss of talismanic captain Gareth Barry to City has also left a gaping hold in midfield that has yet to be filled.
City will most likely put up the most significant challenge for the elusive fourth spot. With strength in depth, the ability to spend big in January and safe hands in Mark Hughes they are a good bet to end the quadropoly.