‘Big Four’ under threat – will someone gatecrash the party?
By Football Talk.
This year the top-four monopoly is under threat. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool have dominated the all-important top four positions in the Premier League table for years. Everton were the last team to break into the top-four when they beat Merseyside rivals Liverpool to fourth spot in 2005. Tottenham and Aston Villa have come close in recent years, but the big-four always seem to prevail.
Before the season began everyone was predicting that Arsenal would be replaced after selling Adebayor and Toure to Manchester City, with the Eastlands outfit favourites to take the Gunners place in the top four after splashing millions on star names. After Liverpool’s impressive second place finish last year, they were expected to maintain their title challenge again this year and battle it out with Manchester United and Chelsea.
But this season has not been predictable in the slightest. Arsenal have mounted a surprise premiership challenge despite being hit with several injuries to key players, none more important than Robin Van Persie who was ruled out for 6 months with a broken foot. Arsene Wenger has stood firm on his principles and so far he has proved everybody wrong with the Gunners right in the mix with 8 games left.
Manchester United as usual are right up there despite some surprise defeats this year. They lost early on to Burnley and were beaten heavily by Fulham at Craven Cottage, while Aston Villa managed to beat them at Old Trafford. But Wayne Rooney has lead United all year and nobody would be surprised if they ended the year as champions once again.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea were at one time looking like they would run away with it, but they have been rocked by an away defeat to Wigan and a home humiliation at the hands of Manchester City. There is currently only 2 points separating the top three and it looks like being an exciting run-in.
So with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea all assured of their ‘top-four’ status next year, the race for fourth has never been this interesting. Three teams are now knocking on the door for a place in the all-important top four and Liverpool are the side under pressure to remain in the big-time. Rafa Benitez’s men have had a poor season, but take nothing away from from the three teams pushing them all the way this season. I will take a look at why Liverpool are in the position they find themselves in, who their challengers are for fourth and predict who i think will win the race to take the last champions league place.
Reasons Liverpool have struggled
- Losing Alonso: Liverpool are weaker than last year. They miss Xabi Alonso big-time. Rafa Benitez brought in Alberto Aquilani to replace him but he’s been injured for most of the season and when he has played he hasn’t looked anywhere near Alonso’s quality. They miss his passing range and energy in the middle of the park.
- Injuries: Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have been injured too often. Liverpool’s best two players by a mile and without them they have struggled. They love playing together and their partnership last year was the main reason Liverpool finished second and only 4 points behind champions Manchester United. Glen Johnson also picked up a serious injury after impressing during his first few months and Liverpool have missed his attacking play from right-back.
- Other teams improving: Villa, Spurs and City have improved from last year. All three have added to their squads and are stronger than last term.
- Under-performing: Many players have simply not performed this season. The usually reliable Jamie Carragher has been out of form during large parts of the campaign. Riera, Babel and Leiva have been poor as well, Kuyt has done a decent job filing in occasionally while Torres was out but mostly has been played on the right where he struggles to make a real impact.
- Lack of strikers: When Torres got injured Liverpool had no replacement, simple. Not that it’s easy to replace a player like Torres but the only option they had was David N’gog, who is young, inexperienced and let’s face it…not very good. This lack of fire-power has resulted in Liverpool failing to score in 6 out of their last 8 away games.
- The famous beach ball: Who can forget the moment a beach ball scored the winner for Sunderland against Liverpool? That kind of luck can kill a season.
Under the guidance of manager Martin O’Neill, Aston Villa have blossomed into champions league contenders. At one stage last year they led fifth place Arsenal by 9 points but cracked under the pressure and missed out on a champions league place.
They have had a strong season again this term and are well in the running for fourth place. With a heavy English presence in the side, Aston Villa are many neutrals favourites. Villa have a water-tight defense marshaled by bargain of the year contender Richard Dunne and this sound platform has been the basis of their success. If Martin O’Neill can figure out a way of scoring more goals without compromising their defense they have a real shot.
With their financial backing, Manchester City are many peoples favourites to come fourth. After splashing out millions on star names such as Adebayor, Given, Toure, De Yong, Tevez, Santa Cruz and Lescott City will be accused of buying success but the supporters wont care.
Failure to finish fourth will not go down well with the owners and Roberto Mancini’s position as manager would be under threat. Despite the good form of Given, question marks remain over their defense, but that can be said of most teams this season. But with the firepower they have available, City will be right up there at the end of the season.
Harry Redknapp has done a fantastic job turning Tottenham from relegation candidates into champions league contenders within 18 months.
As usual Harry has used all his transfer dealing experience to bring in some quality, Niko Krancjar at £2.5 million was a particularly good buy. Goalkeeper Gomes seems to have found some form, Palacios has been a great purchase in midfield and Defoe is always a threat up front. So Redknapp has built a squad capable of finishing fourth, but if they miss out it will be the disappointing home results against Stoke, Hull and Wolves that will have cost them.
I said it before Christmas and i will stick to it now, i think Liverpool will finish fourth. Despite the efforts of Villa, Spurs and City i still think Rafa Benitez’s side will have enough to take fourth. They have the experience to handle the pressure and key men are returning to fitness. Fernando Torres is back playing and scoring goals again and Glen Johnson is back as well.
Plus Liverpool just seem to pull something out the bag when needed. Remember when they stole all three points at Villa Park? They created nothing for 90 minutes, rode their luck, Villa were the better team and Torres made them pay with a last minute winner.
Aston Villa and Spurs have shown in the past they can’t handle the pressure of breaking into the champions league places, and Manchester City are new to it all. With so much at stake i see Liverpool as being in the best position to claim fourth. City, Spurs and Villa will push them all the way, but Liverpool will make it…just.
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