As the 2011-2012 Premier League title race heats up in an inter-city battle between the Manchester Clubs, with third placed Tottenham Hotspur sitting in clean air in 3rd place, there is another question to answer? Who will get the 4th and final remaining Champions League place for next season? Just 4 points separate the four challengers.
First, we have the current leaders of the race: Arsenal. With 25 games gone and 43 points scored, they lead their nearest rivals by goal difference alone. After a very shaky start by the Gunners, this left lingering in a lowly 14th place when the first several matches were completed. This prompted a quick response of a long run of victories, propelling them back to the business end of the table. This was helped in no small part by the continuing run of goals from Star Player Robin Van Persie. 22 goals already this season, and that form looks set to continue in the run-in, barring an injury of course. There is also promising young talent coming through the ranks in the form of £12million man Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s looking ever more likely to be given a seat on the plane to Euro 2012 in the summer, and on the back of some superb performances, and a couple of goals to his name already, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be there. The main concerns that the club will be having at the moment are the future of long-running manager Arsene Wenger, amid rumoured interest from runaway La Liga leaders Real Madrid. The other will be keeping Van Persie fit, as the backup has been less than reliable in front of goal and rather injury prone. Marouane Chamakh is currently nursing a toe injury and Ivorian Gervinho has just four goals to his name. Theo Walcott has fallen out of favour in the team, unable to make significant impacts from his substitute appearances and a somewhat spectacular fall from grace for Russia captain Andrey Arshavin. When the Gunners are on form, they’re unstoppable. They will need to be on top of their game to see off their rivals, and with their next three games being against North London rivals Tottenham, and fellow top-four contenders Liverpool and Newcastle, these will be the defining moments of the Arsenal season. They will want to make up for disappointing in cup competition this season, after a 2-0 exit away to Sunderland in the FA Cup at the weekend and a 4-0 drubbing at AC Milan in the week.
Which brings us to the second of our challengers: Chelsea. Manager Andre Villas-Boas has come under the sort of pressure from Roman Abramovich that has come to be expected since the Russian Billionaire took over at the club nine years ago. This relentless pursuit of success is admirable, but hasn’t been achieved in quite the same regularity since self proclaimed “Special One” Jose Mourinho left the club. Currently lying 5th in the table on goal difference, Chelsea are in a good place to take the challenge to the other contenders, but the big question is whether the unsettling pressure on AVB will have the right effect on the way that the team plays. The strength of the team will be bolstered after welcoming back frontman Didier Drogba and his Ivory Coast team-mate Salomon Kalou from the African Cup of Nations. Michael Essien also returns from his duties with Ghana. £50 million striker Fernando Torres has now gone more than 1000 playing minutes without a goal, and his lack of confidence is proving to be a headache for under-fire AVB, as Torres was an unused substitute in the Champions League first leg loss 3-1 away to Napoli. As a team with one of the higher average ages in the league at around 28 years old, the experience of League titles gone by will need to prove their worth if Chelsea are to secure another season challenging Europe’s elite.
The third team in contention, sitting one point behind Chelsea and Arsenal, are arguably the biggest surprise package of the season so far: Newcastle United. The Magpies have been reborn under boss Alan Pardew after a shock relegation to the Championship three seasons ago. They since gained promotion back to the Premier League and mustered a mid-table finish in their return season. The beginning of this season saw the arrival of Demba Ba. The Senegalese marksman had struggled for form at West Ham in the predecessing season and left Upton Park on a free transfer. But he is currently the second top scorer in the Premier League this season on 19 goals at this point. His Senegal team-mate Papiss Demba Cissé has also made a positive impact since arriving in the January transfer window. And with the Premier League being all that they now have to focus on, the Magpies can now put all their attention into qualifying for Europe; and with the team that they have and the way that they’re playing, there’s every possibility that it could happen for them.
Now for the team that’s bringing up the rear in this battle (incidentally, the team that I support!) is 18-time league champions Liverpool. Currently four points away from the cherished 4th spot, and with the Carling Cup Final at Wembley beckoning, and an FA Cup quarter final appearance in the not-too-distant future, I suppose they could be forgiven for having their attentions diverted. But Martin Skrtel has said that 4th place “is still achievable”, although erratic home form of four wins and eight draws have left Kenny Dalglish’s men left with an uphill battle to try and get back into the Champions League after a three-season absence. The Anfield club have had no shortage of controversy this season with striker Luis Suarez being embroiled in a racism row with Patrice Evra, leaving the Uruguayan with an eight-game ban that expired recently. His absence led to the consistent inclusion of £35 million England forward Andy Carroll, who has had a well- publicised downturn in fortunes since leaving 4th place rivals Newcastle last year. After scoring against Wolves in the League and Championship side Brighton in February, he of all people will be hoping that his fortunes turn around for the remainder of the season. In terms of top-four chances, Liverpool would need to overturn four points and seven goals in goal difference to achieve fourth place by the end of the season, and facing all three rivals for the position in the run-in is most likely to be the defining moment in the Reds’ Premier League season. Current odds make it Chelsea as 5/6 favourites to finish in the top four this season, with Arsenal at 11/8, Liverpool at 3/1 and Newcastle at 12/1. But if I had to predict a winner for this quite significant “booby prize” in English football, my money would be spent on whoever finishes in fourth, because at least then I’ll definitely be right…