Since the advent of the Premier League and the UEFA Champions’ League in 1992 – the year zero of modern football – finishing in the top four of English football’s top flight has been regarded as an achievement on a par with lifting an actual trophy. Qualification for the Champions League is the mother of all money spinners, and the elite English quartet that find themselves in the competition can be assured of receiving all the benefits that come with participation in the biggest club competition in world football. Playing in the Champions’ League has become the be-all-and-end-all of European football, and there is an untouchable handful of superclubs – the crème de la crème of the crème de la crème, as it were – who can always be expected to take their place in the competition year after year, without any danger of slipping out.
Such an invariable hierarchy once existed in English football, especially in the 2000s. The top four was for many years the domain of the Big Four – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – and talk always centered on what order the Big Four would finish in, rather than the possibility of one of the clubs dropping out. The rise of the nouveau super-riche Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur’s smashing of the glass ceiling at the end of the decade, however, saw the break-up of the established order, and while it could be argued that a hierarchy is very much still in place, with the only difference being that it is now merely enlarged, there is no denying that there is greater variability with regard to the teams who occupy the top four at the end of the season. Whilst Liverpool were the early victims of this significant upheaval, their revival last season came at the expense of Manchester United, who failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 19 years.
This season promises to bring even greater unpredictability to the top four chase; with Liverpool and Manchester United struggling early on, this could be the year that the Premier League witnesses the most profound change at the summit. Here are three outsiders who could break into the top four:
[ffcvideo file=”TopFiveVideosoftheWeek” type=”mp4″]
Everton are arguably the team who set out the stall for a change in the makeup of the top four. Their fourth-placed finish under David Moyes ten years ago saw Liverpool ejected from the elite, and although the Reds still qualified for the Champions League the following season due to their heroics in Istanbul, their rivals across Stanley Park proved that the Big Four were by no means untouchable. Much has changed since then at Goodison Park; while last season was a memorable one for the Toffees as they recorded their highest ever points total in the league under new manager Roberto Martinez, the current campaign has begun badly. The £28m paid by Martinez for Romelu Lukaku was a significant investment and the Belgian has started to find goalscoring form, however failure to address weaknesses in the defence in the transfer window could prove to be a glaring oversight as Everton have already conceded heavily this season – the most in the league so far. Although Everton have a talented young manager and an exciting attack, their ageing defence often leaves them vulnerable; as such, a top four spot looks to be out of their reach this season.
Top Four verdict: Unlikely
Tottenham Hotspur emulated Everton by finishing in the Top Four in the 2009/10 season, however they can still be considered outsiders to repeat the feat given that it was the solitary year in which they managed to qualify for the Champions’ League. They were harshly denied qualification three seasons ago despite finishing fourth, due to sixth-placed Chelsea winning the competition (which meant that the Blues took their place), and the belief of many this season is that Spurs are a team who are not quite good enough to make the Champions’ League. Like Everton, there is one area of the team in which they are notably weak; they possess a wonderful goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, a decent defence and impressive strength in depth and attacking flair in midfield, yet their strikeforce is woefully inadequate. Emmanuel Adebayor has experience and can be a menace on his day, but is too inconsistent and at 30 is past his peak, while Roberto Soldado has displayed the attacking threat of a sloth since his arrival last season. If chairman Daniel Levy can bring himself to be patient for once and persist with new manager Mauricio Pochettino, then Champions League football may eventually come, though it may be a tall order this season.
Top Four verdict: Dark horses if they invest in a quality striker in January
The Saints were ready and set for a season of difficult transition after an exodus of playing and coaching staff over the summer, however current manager Ronald Koeman has made a mockery of such predictions so far as his new-look side has enjoyed a superb start to the campaign. His recent signings – especially Graziano Pellé – have settled in well, whilst homegrown players such as Nathaniel Clyne and James Ward-Prowse continue to develop at an impressive rate – with the former scoring a superb goal against Arsenal in the League Cup. Koeman has not been afraid to stamp his authority on the team by offloading the likes of Gaston Ramirez and Dani Osvaldo, and is an experienced manager who has enjoyed plenty of success on the continent. The news that Ward-Prowse will be out for ten weeks due to injury will have come as a blow, however the way in which the Saints cope in his absence will determine whether they can seriously be considered as top four contenders. Southampton currently sit in the upper echelons of the table, and with three of their most of their coming games at home against mid-to-lower table opposition, their stay in the top four may not be a fleeting one. Of all the outsiders, the Saints are probably the team who are fancied the least; but their talented squad and team ethic, not to mention their decorated manager, mean that they should certainly not be underestimated.
Top Four verdict: Europa League more realistic, but write them off at your peril