Arsenal? Let’s take a look and assess their chances.
Last season, Chelsea’s success by triumphing in the most unlikely of circumstances saw them clinch the final qualifying place despite only finishing 6th in the Premier League, cruelly relegating Tottenham to the Europa League. After all, as Liverpool fans experienced after their shock success back in 2005, it’s difficult to call it the ‘Champions League’ when it doesn’t have the defending champions in it and along with Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, England had its four representatives, who, by and large, most people would have predicted prior to the season beginning, even if the route was somewhat convoluted this time around. This season, though, the race for a top four place looks wide open and several teams stand a reasonably good chance of gatecrashing the party.
The fact that so many of the top sides are currently in a period that they would term as ‘transition’ means for the first time in recent memory, there could be two places up for grabs in the top four, with only Sir Alex Ferguson’s and Roberto Mancini’s sides good enough to string a consistent run of form together at the moment, despite their obvious deficiencies and each and every challenger has gone through a period of rotten form already.
Chelsea currently sit in third in the league table at the moment, but a ten-point gap has slowly but surely opened up behind United and they’ve slipped well off the pace, long before the deeply unpopular Rafa Benitez ever stepped through the door at Stamford Bridge. The team’s blistering start was unexpected, yet they lack leaders throughout the team aside from the traditional and much-maligned ‘old guard’ and they look brittle at the back when put under any sort of pressure.
They became the first defending champions to crash out at the first hurdle in mid-week despite hammering Nordsjaelland 6-1 at home, with the damage already done under Di Matteo and the disappointing 2-2 draw at home to Juventus proving costly. They are currently on a run of seven games without a win in the Premier League and the struggles of Fernando Torres up front refuse to go away, with the spectre of Falcao looming large. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of quality that they have within the squad should mean they are there or thereabouts by the end of the term and they always retain the ability to strengthen heavily in January should they need to, and you suspect they just might to try this route to success again in the hope of reviving a flagging campaign.
Arsenal produced a stunning comeback in form towards the back end of last season from February onwards, overhauling a huge lead that their north London rivals Tottenham had on them in the process on their way to third place, but a repeat performance looks unlikely at best at the moment. They’ve qualified for the Champions League during the past 15 consecutive seasons under Arsene Wenger, a tremendous run which he deserves credit for, but without someone like Robin van Persie to lead the line, they look short of not only confidence, but quality in several key areas and they look unlikely to extend it to 16 seasons in a row this year.
My tip for the top four this season was Tottenham and I’ll stand by that given the progress the team is currently making under Andre Villas-Boas, particularly given the sheer pace of change at the club over the past few months. While they are a flawed outfit, prone to capitulation, they look capable of stringing together a run of results more than most of their rivals for a top four spot. It’s imperative that they keep Moussa Dembele fit, though, for without him, they lack energy and conviction in the middle of the park, while they could also do with a new centre-half in January, but they finally appear to be hitting their stride and look set to make the top four for the second season running for my money.
Another team with an outside chance of making the grade is Everton, who happen to be going through their own patch of sticky form right at this minute, which has seen them draw seven of their last nine league games, winning just one. After a fantastic start, the traditional slow-starters have seemingly gone about their season in reverse and there’s a sense that they’ve failed to capitalise when the going has been good to establish themselves while others around them have floundered. They are still just three points off the pace and Tottenham in fourth place, but draws against the likes of QPR, Norwich and Wigan, not to mention the late equaliser they conceded against Fulham and their recent defeat to Reading could come back to haunt them further down the line. They are only one Marouane Fellaini injury away from their hopes being ended, and while they remain a solid, organised and increasingly attractive outfit to watch, their inability to grind out results and keep clean sheets could cost them dearly.
Their Merseyside rivals Liverpool are another team deemed with an outside chance of making the top four this season under new boss Brendan Rodgers and there’s evidence that slowly but surely they are adjusting to their new style of play with some success. They currently sit in 11th, but just seven points behind Tottenham in a tightly-congested table and their recent nine-game unbeaten run pointed to progress being made. The dampening of expectations around Anfield this summer, coupled with the fact that they are relying heavily on inexperienced youth players and are overly-reliant on Luis Suarez means they are not the best organised to make the step up required. The return of Lucas Leiva from injury should see them finish in the top eight, possibly even top six, and the club’s fans would have taken that at the start of the season; they are building towards a genuine challenge within a couple of years, but for the moment, it may have come too early for them and they need to remain realistic.
Finally, we move over to Newcastle, a side that’s failed to live up to expectations under Alan Pardew this season and one which is struggling with their own variant of second-season syndrome. With such a small squad, every injury and suspension has been keenly felt, while the lack of investment in the summer was tantamount to gross negligence; a needless tightening of the purse strings at the precise time when they needed to be loosened. The balancing act of European and Premier League football has proven too much to handle for them this season and they look set for a campaign of mid-table obscurity, which is a deeply disappointing follow-up performance to their fantastic breakthrough last year.
If I had to stick my neck out on the line and predict the top four by May, coincidentally, it would look exactly the same as it does now, with Chelsea and Tottenham joining the sure-fire bets of United and City. The increasingly competitive nature of the top flight has made predicting the Champions League spots harder to predict than ever, with Swansea and West Brom also worthy of a mention after their early season form, but over the course of a long campaign, the teams with the most money will gradually edge ahead, with Arsenal’s decline creating the conditions for which another club can now steal a spot.
It’s far from sown up yet and Everton still stand the best shot out of all the remaining contenders if you ask me, but it’ll prove exceedingly difficult for the likes of Newcastle and Liverpool to come back after their slow starts. Clinching a top four spot is still considered the Holy Grail in England, with Arsene Wenger even ranking it above winning the League Cup, but with 23 games of the campaign left and such an open race, it promises to deliver a few twists and turns yet – the flawed nature of all the usual suspects practically guarantees it.