Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa Fight for Fourth in EPL
Myriad predictions have been promulgated by all manner of punditry in the time that has passed since the end of last season as to who the top four would comprise of at the close of this season.
The season as it has progressed has shown that form is never an indicator of pedigree when a new season begins. Most notably in this respect, Liverpool, have surprised many, by lurching about like a tired old actor trying to recapture his glory days.
Their inability to convert the stellar form of last season into a catalyst for a first title in the EPL, has left the door to the top four open for other sides, to sneak past the ailing reds to the lucrative possibilities of champions league participation.
At present, the standings show that money talks, with a Tevez-propelled Manchester City side currently sitting in fourth, followed closely by a Harry Redknapp-inspired Tottenham Hotspur, then Liverpool, followed by Aston Villa. Villa are five points behind Manchester City but do have a game in hand, which could make things interesting if Martin O'Neill can fire up his charges for an end of season blaze.
The following paragraphs will outline each team and what they bring to this interestingly poised battle.
The ridiculously rich sky blue clad side have produced some outstanding moments of footballing skill this season, but also shown that money cannot buy you team cohesion.
The early season form they produced was intimidating for opponents and this seemed to count in their favor early on, though Burnley stood up to them at Eastlands and walked away with a valuable point that unfortunately for them has become less and less likely to be worth anything, despite the stirring display they produced to get it.
This draw with Burnley was the start of some really patchy form for the Manchester side and they were no doubt looking enviously across town at a Manchester United side who seemed at times to stumble toward the goal and run away with arms aloft and points secured.
Mark Huhges was the biggest casualty of the teams inability to click and the manner of his dismissal was made extremely sour by the news in the aftermath of how his time in charge came to an end.
Oddly, the last game he presided over was the beginning of a turnaround in form that has seen them mount one of the most serious and committed attempts to break into the champions league spots.
The outstandingly tenacious and prodigiously skilled Argentinian Carlos Tevez has been a huge factor in this run and his goals have made Roberto Mancini's time in charge as successful as fellow Italian Julius Caesar's second invasion of Britian, in which the legendary Roman leader enjoyed victories but took no spoils. The coming weeks will decide whether he has a solid platform to build on for an assault on the trophies next season.
Manchester City this weekend face Birmingham City at home and they will hope Alex McLeish's side are unable to continue the excellent form they have shown against the big guns of the premiership.
City have been working very effectively in the most part, despite the blip they experienced against David Moyes's reinvigorated Everton. Combinations have seemed to be more consistently readable under the Italian manager, to his credit, and certain players have enjoyed patches of form that warrant their price tags.
Definitely favorites for the fourth spot at present, with a large squad, striking talent to burn and a team unit that has started to prove they know what they are doing.
Redknapp is a top tactician and an excellent judge of ability and transferable qualities to an existing team unit. He has taken a side that could do nothing right under Juande Ramos and melded it into one that has shrugged off the mantle of inconsistency that has dogged the club since its excellent period in the eighties.
He has taken advantage of his former employer Portsmouth FC's financial crisis and snapped up several bargains from the side he won the FA cup with and re-worked the combinations at White Hart Lane so that his team now lies in fifth place and very much in the hunt for the highly prized and coveted fourth spot.
Spurs this season have finally played the football that their supporters have insisted they were capable of for many years. Redknapp has got the club buzzing with belief and stirred his players imaginations in such a way that they are visibly confident and assured of their ability every time they take the pitch.
They have the chance this weekend to take on a severely depleted Arsenal side and get three points that could go unforeseeably far, in making the future of this club, with the cockerel on its badge, something to crow about. In arguably the biggest and most historically significant tie of the weekend the Londoners take on their cross town rivals in a game that will no doubt throw up something for football lovers everywhere.
Luka Modric has proved that he is more than capable of inspiring a premier league side with several performances that show he is in fact one of the worlds leading exponents of midfield play.
Also impressive has been Heurelho Gomes, who has bounced back from scathing criticism to provide an often impregnable wall for opposition attackers. The team has had excellent structure and verve and been able to garner a consistency that belies Redknapps short spell in charge so far.
After the blip away to Sunderland who were inspired by former Spurs man Darren Bent, the Lilywhites will have to be at their best to knock the stuffing out of an Arsenal side, who refuse to let a nightmarish catalogue of injurious fate, hamper their play and determination to succeed.
The Anfield reds were many experts' choice for top honors this year. How wrong the experts have been. The loss of Xabi Alonso has been much harder to bear than many anticipated. There no doubt have been many occasions this season that Benitez would have wished he had been more tactful with his countryman.
Liverpool's form has been inconsistent and compared to the devastating show they put on at times last season, woeful.
This weeks mauling of Benfica has shown that the quality has been there all along, though that in itself is reason for Liverpool fans to wonder.
After a bad start they seemed earlier in the season to finally have turned the corner when they subjected the champions to a two nil defeat that made Manchester United look really quite ordinary. Tellingly, the Manchester side have regathered from that result and now challenge for the title while Liverpool sit in sixth place having played a game more than each of the teams that really have a good chance of securing the fourth place.
They are by no means out of the running though and if they are able to go through to the final day playing like they did against the Portuguese giants they will certainly give those above them a run for their champions league money.
Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are so obviously key to their run in that if any injury that lasts to long is taken by one of these players it will definitely be more Europa league for the Anfield club next season.
They play a dangerous Fulham side who have beaten their fair share of top talent this season in the league and Europe, so will have to play for their points and Benitez will certainly have a tussle on his hands against a manager of the pedigree of Roy Hodgson.
Last and sadly for the villains least, there is still an outside chance for the Birmingham based outfit. Martin O'Neill is obviously a very good manager, with the powerful force he has been able to make Aston Villa in the last few years on a budget that is dwarfed by the clubs around him.
He has, after all, been on numerous occasions linked to the job at Old Trafford as a possible successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, though Aston Villa would really want to try to keep a hold of the wily Irishman.
He has assembled a very strong side in his time at the club, though to a certain extent is let down by not being able to strengthen his squad to the point that many other sides in the top few places enjoy. At times his secondary options have just not been up to the task and it is a testament to his ability that he has been able to keep the side in the hunt for the chance at participating next year in Europe's premier football competition.
Villa this weekend have the visit of David Moyes and his Everton side. Everton have been resurgent and have certainly been playing some of the better football in the league recently, they have enjoyed wins over Manchester United and Chelsea at Goodison and also beaten Manchester City at Eastlands, with a resilient display that gave an insight into the amazing belief that Moyes is able to instill in his side.
If Villa lose this weekend there will be no chance of them taking the fourth spot. It is really a case of every game is a cup final for O'Neill and his villainous charges, so expect them to play with determination and desperation which could prove to be dangerous for the teams they encounter in the coming weeks.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, James Milner, and Ashley Young will be aiming to be on the plane for Africa and so will be doing their best to impress Fabio Capello that they are the men for the job.
Overall it would have to be reasoned that Manchester City are in the driving seat here, though with Spurs riding shotgun and looking across for a chance to grab the wheel, the City side will have to negotiate the bends coming and keep themselves firmly in control.
Liverpool are in with an outside chance, though having played one more game are at a slight disadvantage. They do of course have a quite excellent array of talent at their disposal and it would be unwise even this late to write them off.
Aston Villa are in much the same position as Liverpool and will look to their luminaries on the pitch to try and inspire some sort of cat burglar like pilfering of the fourth place from under the noses of those above them.
All of these teams have players who are either going to South Africa or trying to get a chance to be there. This of course brings the level of competition into a steely focus that can weed out the men from the boys and show just who has the extra quality and who the pretenders are.
When this weekends round is concluded, it may not be conclusive as to who will take the fourth spot, but it could well be a smaller amount of teams that have the chance.
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