As we move towards the new year, five teams are fighting it out for third and fourth in the Premier League. Arsenal, Aston Villa, Spurs, Manchester City, and Liverpool are striving to lay claim to those coveted Champions League positions and only two will prevail. But who?
The season has hit it's halfway mark, and truth be told, the top three has a predictable ring about it. The only real surprise, position wise, has been Liverpool's disastrous start to the season, which see's them floundering in seventh, out of title contention, and with their manager under severe pressure to finish fourth.
While the likes of Spurs, Villa, and City have definitely progressed, the real reason for the big teams struggling this year is that they have either stood still or regressed themselves.
Chelsea have added no one of any real standing to their already fine squad. Only Yuri Zhirkov was added in the summer for £18 million, and has only made one Premier League appearance as substitute, making him one of the worst signings so far this season.
As everyone already knows, Manchester United sold Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80 million, and never replaced him. For the most part Wayne Rooney has ploughed a lone furrow up front this season, as neither of his fellow strikers, Berbatov or Michael Owen, seem capable of taking any of the weight from his great shoulders.
They have also been beset by a defensive injury crisis of biblical proportions, that has seen Michael Carrick imitate a defender on more than one occasion, and poorly at that I might add.
In the summer, Arsene Wenger allowed two of his most seasoned campaigners leave for pastures new in Manchester, with City. Kolo Toure has not been missed one iota, as Thomas Vermaelan slotted right in, and they are only beginning to miss the influence of Emmanuel Adebayor.
The Togolese striker was never one of the favourites inside or outside the dressing room at the Emirates, and the £25 million Manchester City paid for him represents good business, but only if the money is re-invested wisely.
Unfortunately it has not.
Robin van Persie was entrusted with the lone striking role as Wenger gambled on the health of a player who only averages 24 from 38 games a season. The gamble backfired in spectacular fashion as the Dutchman picked up a serious ankle injury in a friendly when his country played Italy, an injury that not only has him ruled out for the rest of the season, but also threatens to rule him out of the World Cup next June.
With his two backup forwards, Bendtner and Eduardo, far from the quality needed to challenge for the league, Wenger has resorted to using the diminutive Andrei Arshavin as a stop gap until the January transfer window opens.
The one position that links all three teams is goalkeeper.
Petr Cech appears to be finished at this level.
He has never been the same since he fractured his skull in the collision with Reading's Stephen Hunt. Now his nerves look frayed, his bravery has deserted him, and his decision making is questionable. Chelsea will move for a 'keeper sooner rather than later, as they are on the clock.
Their appeal with the Court of Arbitration of Sport will in all probability be thrown out and they will then have to serve a ban through two transfer windows where they will not be allowed sign any player. Future problems have to be fixed now.
Liverpool's demise from title challengers to also-rans has been as quick as it has been dramatic.
With Rafael Benitez at the helm, they have signed poorly, and now they are beginning to reap the fruit of a poor transfer strategy.
With the sale of only one player, Xabi Alonso, Liverpool have in one swift move, by their own manager, been robbed of the link between midfield and defence.
Add in a few injuries to squad players, and rather than resembling a who's who of football, Liverpool's squad became a who's that?
Their backward steps has allowed the likes of Villa, Spurs, and City to gain ground rapidly.
Villa and Spurs have very shrewd managers in charge, with Martin O'Neill and Harry Redknapp respectively.
Both are traditional English style managers who have built their reputations on hard working teams, and this has been carried over into their current clubs.
O'Neill has been nothing short of excellent in his dealings in the transfer market since he moved to Villa. The likes of Richard Dunne, Stephen Warnock, and James Collins have all come in for less than £15 million between them, while James Milner is fast becoming the new Paul Scholes of the league since joining from Newcastle.
Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor have both progressed substantially under the ex-Celtic boss, and are knocking on the door to be included in Fabio Capello's World Cup squad for England.
One of the best signing's O'Neill has made has been Brad Friedel. Always one of the best 'keepers in the league, the American was allowed to move to Villa from Blackburn for only £2 million. So far this year, Friedel has been the outstanding 'keeper in the EPL.
So Villa has moved forward to take advantage, but what of Spurs?
Tottenham has always been one of the biggest spending teams in the league when it comes to transfers.
It's a crucial point, as Spurs has carried itself as a big club for years, but has never been run like one.
While previous managers have been caught up in the trappings and the history associated with the club and bought big to appease the fans, Harry Redknapp is the first manager since Keith Burkinshaw in the '80s to actually sign good players with the view to actually building a team.
For the past 30 years, Spurs have been an easy touch. A team who flattered to deceive, who would play scintillating football one minute and then go missing the next. A weak team, who were afraid to take that big step into becoming winners, a team who were always looking for an excuse to lose.
Redknapp has begun to change that at Tottenham. Key players have come in, and for the first time in decades, Spurs actually have a shape about them, and a bit of fight.
City, on the other hand, are the new money of the league. Spending more in one season than the likes of Spurs, Liverpool, United, Arsenal, Villa, and Chelsea have spent in the last five is no mean feat.
But Mark Hughes did just that, and then paid the ultimate price for spending so much and not challenging for the league.
While the sacking has come across as being a little harsh, the progress that City's Abu Dhabi owners were expecting for their outlay has not been there. Hughes, if it was him, signed poorly for the money he spent, and now Roberto Mancini has taken on the onerous task of getting City into the top four.
So who will finish where?
The league is Chelsea's to lose.
They're doing their best to lose it though. As the league stands, Carlo Ancellotti's team are only one point better off that of Luiz Scolari's Chelsea of last season after 19 games. January will have a large part to say in their title credentials, as they will lose key players for the African nations, namely Didier Drogba, Saloman Kalou, John Obi-Mikel, and Michael Essien.
The transfer window will be of massive importance.
Saying that, I don't see them finishing lower than second, so they're guaranteed Champions League football next term.
Manchester United have some of the Ronaldo money left to spend. Despite their current defensive injury crisis, they don't really need to sign any defenders, as none are real long term problems.
Next summer they will have to do something big though. Nemanja Vidic's head appears to have been turned by Barcelona and he could leave, while Rio Ferdinand looks a shadow of his former self. If Vidic goes, expect Ferdinand to follow.
United's real problems are in the midfield and up front.
It says much on how United have declined as a force if Darren Fletcher is their best midfielder.
A very capable player, but he is not in the same class as the likes of Roy Keane, and that is the standard United should be looking for.
Behind Fletcher, the likes of Anderson and Carrick have gone backwards as players, Owen Hargreaves may never play again, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are finished at the very highest level as consistent performers, and Darren Gibson looks a very far prospect at this stage.
United need a central midfielder rapidly, especially if they want to avoid the kind of pasting that Barcelona gave them in the Champions League last year.
Up front, Berbatov has been a dreadful signing. Since his £30 million move, the ex-Spurs player has flattered to deceive. At this stage of his United career, the Bulgarian is not trusted by Alex Ferguson for the really big matches and he is either often left out or substituted after an hour.
A strike partner for Rooney is another imperative, unless Berbatov improves dramatically, and judging on his past form, that is unlikely.
Micheal Owen's signing looked like inspiring, but it has not turned out that way, and one must wonder what the ex-Liverpool man is like on the training ground to warrant such little time on the pitch.
Saying all that, United will still challenge for the title and won't finish any lower than third. They too are guaranteed Champions League football.
Arsenal are on a knife edge, four points off first, four points off fifth. Their season really could go either way, so Wenger has to get it spot on in the window. For the moment a new striker and new goalkeeper are needed. Le Prof has the money, but he must sign big players who will come in and do immediate jobs for him.
His track record at signing this kind of player is not great. Arshavin worked brilliantly, and the same will have to be done again, twice if Arsenal are to have any chance of winning the league.
I can't see them achieving this, but they could push United for second. This transfer window is so important for both of these teams and a wrong move by either manager could have a serious affect on their title challenge.
For Liverpool, the answer is simple. Sign a new midfielder to replace Alonso if Aquilani is not trusted, and a back-up striker for Torres, while keeping the Spaniard and Gerrard fit.
Liverpool have been playing top level football for some time now, and they have an incredibly experienced squad.
This experience factor will be the key element to determining who will finish fourth between the likes of Liverpool, City, Villa, and Spurs.
For all the good players that are at the three clubs, they are all in-experienced when it comes to the white hot heat of battle.
City have a slight advantage over the likes of Spurs and Villa in that they have the likes of Toure and Adebayor and Robinho on their books. But anyone who knows anything about football will tell you that those three big names are not to be trusted, and are self serving players who play for themselves rather than their team.
So unless Roberto Mancini signs some real quality all over the pitch in January, I can't see City breaking the top four this year.
Villa will have very little to spend and O'Neill is not blessed with the largest of squads, so the run in from March will take a big toll on the Villains, they have the heart to get there, just not the head.
At this level, they do not possess the experience of their rivals, and they may fall just short again.
Spurs appear to have a squad capable of mounting a challenge, but they too are very inexperienced when it comes to a challenge of this sort.
Redknapp will have to sign brilliantly in January to get Spurs into the top four, but he must sell before he can buy.
For this reason, I think Spurs will also fall short. It is an open secret who Redknapp wants to get rid of at Tottenham, but who would have the money to buy the likes of Bentley and Pavlyuchenko amongst others?
Only Manchester City, unless Harry can do the odd swap deal and gamble on a player coming in. At this stage of their development, Tottenham needs experience. The signing of players like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrick Vieira, and David Beckham might represent short term commitments, but they would bring an air of authority and experience that Tottenham's young squad could learn from.
With all things considered, good players being available, injuries, suspensions, fitness, and tactical know-how, experience will be the key decider that separates the wheat from the chaff.
Not just for the players, but for the managers too.
For that reason, the top four will in all probability remain as it has for the last number of years.
1) Chelsea (c)
2) Manchester United
6) Aston Villa
7) Manchester City
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