The race for Champions League qualification has emerged in recent years as the third most exciting mini-competition within the Premier League. It might lack the glory of winning the title or the intense relief of avoiding relegation, but participation in Europe’s premier competition is necessary for any club to progress. The financial rewards alone are mouth-watering but there is also a certain prestige that comes with playing against the best Europe has to offer. This season the top 3 are likely to be Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, though probably not in that order. The fourth spot has yet to be claimed; Liverpool probably remain the favourites despite lagging behind somewhat; they are the side with the experience and the pedigree to put together a prolonged winning streak later on in the season. But their spot is by no means secure and there are three clubs with serious ambitions of overtaking them in the hunt for fourth. Manchester City, Tottenham and Aston Villa don’t have the distraction of Europa League football in the second half of the season and if there was ever a time for the ‘Big Four’ monopoly to be broken, it is now.
Mark Hughes’ Manchester City have suffered the least defeats of any Premier League side this season which just the one loss against United. Their run of seven draws halted their progress significantly but the win over Chelsea could be the spark that reignites their season. Their squad is one of the strongest in the division and they should not suffer any fatigue after missing out on Europe last season. The performances against ‘Big Four’ sides have been impressive and it is only an inability to kill off the weaker teams that has prevented them from making an even better start to the season. They currently lie sixth, pretty good considering the side still lacks balance and a leader at the back. Hughes is likely to delve into the transfer market in January and his side are definitely capable of finishing fourth.
Tottenham have come a long way in a short spell of time under Harry Redknapp and are the current occupants of the much-coveted fourth spot. Their attacking play is very good as evidenced by the 9-1 demolition of Wigan; in Jermaine Defoe they have one of the best marksmen in the league and with likes of Lennon, Krankjar and Modric to provide the ammunition, he should continue to score goals. There are frailties though; two of their four centre-backs are injury-prone and they will lose Bassong and Assou-Ekotto to the African Cup of Nations. Wilson Palacios is an immensely talented player but his form has been poor of late and Redknapp is known to be seeking reinforcements in that area as Jenas appears to be out of favour. Robbie Keane’s form has also been criticised and with Roman Pavlyuchenko seemingly on the way out, a striker may be needed to provide cover for Crouch and Defoe. In general the squad is strong with the likes of Bale, Bentley, Hutton and Dos Santos providing good cover. Of the three challengers, Spurs seem to be in the box seat, they have a talented and settled team that will always score goals.
Villa’s season has come as something of a surprise, many thought the loss of Gareth Barry would be felt deeply but they have coped admirably. The inspired signings of Dunne and Warnock have made Villa a far sturdier outfit and they possess one of the best defences in the league. James Milner is a wonderful player and moving him into the centre of midfield has been effective. With Downing and Young on the flanks, Villa can hurt any side, especially on the counter-attack. Agbonlahor is a talent, but whether he can maintain his scoring form for the entirety of the season is yet to be seen though John Carew will pitch in with a few. Emile Heskey’s role at the club is unclear and the England man will never score too many goals. Villa’s squad is stronger than it was last year when they faded badly; their defence is the foundation of their challenge, but they lack a top striker and this may cost them in May if one is not brought in during the transfer window.
It would be a welcome surprise to see any one of these sides finish fourth at the end of the season; I for one am getting a little bored of the same four sides dominating mid-week television. Aston Villa are the outsiders and would do well to repeat last season’s sixth place finish. Spurs may be considered the most likely to dislodge Liverpool, but for me Manchester City have the edge because they can go out and bring in real quality in January to help them push on.