With little over 10 games remaining in this season’s Premier League marathon, the bell is just about to ring loud and clear to signal the final lap.
This is now a sprint to fourth place for Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, and Aston Villa.
Any major slip-ups now and the hopes of Champions League football next season will be banished.
Perhaps that is why Man City and Liverpool were so cautious in their approach to Sunday’s clash, not wanting to commit players forward in fear of leaving defensive gaps exposed. Not losing seemed more important than winning.
Though it is somewhat understandable to have taken this approach in such a critical game, where defeat would have been catastrophic, a different mentality is likely to be required as the final straight comes into view.
With star striker Fernando Torres now back in Liverpool’s ranks, Rafa Benitez is likely to adopt a slightly more forward-thinking strategy in the coming weeks than the system implemented at Eastlands.
With Torres having been injured since the New Year, Benitez has thus far set his priorities on making Liverpool hard to beat, in the hope that David Ngog, Steven Gerrard, or Dirk Kuyt will nick a goal to secure three points.
Liverpool’s run-in is very favorable, with only Manchester United and Chelsea providing opposition that should, on paper at least, take any points from Benitez’s side. All Liverpool’s other nine games are against teams in the bottom 11, with fixtures against Hull, Portsmouth, Burnley, Wigan, and Sunderland looking particularly mouth-watering for Benitez.
There will certainly be no excuses if Liverpool fail to secure fourth come May with that run-in.
Even Liverpool’s hopeless American owners must be able to work out that Liverpool should win at least seven of those nine games against lower sides. Even they should be able to come to the conclusion that Benitez should be fired if fourth place is not secured.
Manchester City seem most likely to threaten Liverpool’s charge for fourth, and they too will surely adopt a more attacking approach than seen on Sunday. With City’s abundance of technically gifted forwards and lack of top defenders, attack seems to be the best form of defence in their case.
Certainly Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini have previously played with a much more open style than was visible in Sunday’s dour stalemate, and if Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Craig Bellamy are used to best effect in the coming weeks, then the need to defend immaculately will not be so great.
Against bitter rivals Manchester United earlier this season, City played expansive football and came so close to causing a major upset at Old Trafford, only losing thanks to Michael Owen’s dramatic winner in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
Even top-class defences like United’s can clearly be breached by City’s array of attacking stars. Just ask Chelsea. Just ask Arsenal.
With City coming face-to-face with Chelsea, United, and Arsenal in their difficult run-in, similar clinical finishing will be required if Mancini is to guide his team to Champions League football. Home games against Tottenham and Aston Villa will also be defining fixtures in what is likely to be the closest battle for fourth in years.
But when both Liverpool and City’s run-ins are considered, it should certainly be Benitez who is victorious come May. With a better consistency of quality players to work with and a more favorable fixture list than City, finishing below fourth would be the biggest embarrassment of this wretched season for Liverpool.
Of course, it is not only Man City who will challenge Liverpool for the final Champions League spot, as Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Wigan on Sunday pushed them into fourth place for the time being.
Though Jermaine Defoe is one of the Premier League’s most electrifying strikers, and though Tottenham possess quality players in every position, their run-in is once more much more difficult than Liverpool’s. They face consecutive fixtures against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man United in April and will also travel Man City and Stoke, two of the league’s most unforgiving places to visit.
Harry "Houdini" Redknapp really will have worked his magic to miraculous effect if Tottenham are playing Champions League football next season.
Aston Villa also remain a threat to Liverpool, but their inconsistency seems likely to plague their push for fourth. They rely too heavily on successful counter-attacking, and their goals tally remains far behind their Champions League rivals. While their fixture list only contains Chelsea and Man City as tough opponents who stand out, their form suggests they won’t be good enough to beat Liverpool to fourth.
Manchester City are really the team Benitez should be keeping an eye on. With an experienced coach in Mancini and star players like Tevez and Bellamy, they are certainly a force to be reckoned with.
But Liverpool can match them. City have no Gerrard or Torres, and perhaps more crucially, City don’t have a fixture list like Liverpool.