As Liverpool’s win against Wigan last night brings the Reds back into the top six of the Premier League, who are the Merseysider’s biggest challengers to their perennial top four position? It has been a struggle all season for Liverpool, as a supporter of the team, it has been plain to see that the confidence the team exuded for large parts of last season, has faded away. In its place there has been a nervousness and lack of certainty which has contributed to some abject displays and performances such as the one against Arsenal where they put so much effort in the first half, only to fall away as the tide turned against them in the second period. Benitez has assured us that his team will finish in the top four but as our form has continued to fluctuate, the challengers for our fourth place have already been given a head start.
The team which has taken the biggest advantage is Aston Villa. They have been in stunning form in the last few weeks and have stretched a 5 point gap ahead of Liverpool in the table. What seems the biggest revelation in recent games is James Milner, whose performances in the middle of the park have been fantastic. Villa manager Martin O’Neill has been quick to point out Milner’s exceptional form:
Milner has just been fantastic since he arrived at the football club. He has come into the middle of midfield now and he has just been colossal for us, colossal. From midfield, it is his third goal in five games. He is certainly enjoying it. It doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put in a lot of hard work. He has just been wonderful. He deserves it as well because he is an exceptional fella.
I for one did not expect Milner to move into central midfield, I believed that one of Downing, Young or Milner would miss out in each match but it shows you what I know. O’Neill’s decision to put Milner in the centre has paid off handsomely and if performances such as the ones against Manchester United and Sunderland continue for the rest of the season then Liverpool will find it hard to catch up.
So what of the other contenders for Liverpool’s Champions League place? The game between Tottenham and Man City could have given us a good indication to where these two protagonists stand in the race for fourth place. In Man City’s case it appears there may be a long way to go for although the 3-0 defeat to Spurs was only their second defeat of the season, the amount of draws has shown a certain soft centre and weakness at the back which will need to be strengthened if they want to finish alongside Chelsea and Man United in the top four. Richard Dunne’s strong performances at the back for Villa show that Man City manager Mark Hughes may just regret letting him go at the start of the season; a secure defence is the foundation for any challenge for honours or league placings.
As for Spurs, for me, the jury is still out. They struggled to break down Wolves at home at the weekend but managed to cut through City’s defence, I would say sixth place is a more likely ambition for a club who just need a bit more cutting edge in the big games away from home. Top four for them is certainly not way out of reach.
Aston Villa are in my opinion the most immediate danger for Liverpool in the pursuit of that much coveted Champions League football. If they just add one or two players to their squad in January, their form may not stutter as they did last season and they may have the energy to go all the way, especially without any European football to worry about. Liverpool will however, definitely have to go on a winning streak of their own if they want to ensure Benitez keeps his promise of playing at the top level in Europe next season, but they will have to be positive rather than negative if they want to realize this goal. Going away to places like Blackburn and getting only a 0-0 draw is not good enough, they will have to be more like Aston Villa who were always a threat going forward against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night. The battle for fourth seems to have only just begun.