EPL : The Race Is On For European Football Next Season
This week see the re-commencement of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League competitions. Midweek European club football is back!
The riches and lucrative returns that both these competitions bring, but more so, for the Champions League is what all Premier League clubs aspire to. But there are some that can realistically challenge for the finishing spots that bring European football to their clubs, and there are those that can only dream of it.
As we all know by know, a top four finish brings with it Champions League football; automatically for the top three places and the fourth going through the qualifiers.
The fifth placed team qualifies for the Europa League automatically. And if the both the FA Cup and Carling Cup are won by a team that has automatically qualified for a European competition due to its league finish, then the sixth and seventh teams qualify for the competition too.
It is most likely, as has been the case in most years, that the FA Cup will be won this season by a team that will secure its place in Europe by its league table finish; the exception was Portsmouth in 2008.
The Carling Cup has an interesting twist this season, as the final will be contested between Arsenal and Birmingham City. If Birmingham win, then they will take one of the places in the Europa League, as it is unlikely they will qualify for Europe by their league finish.
So those teams challenging for a Europa League spot will more than likely be rooting for a Gunners, victory which would leave a seventh place finish enough to secure a Europa League place.
This season has seen, probably, one of the most openly contested Premier League title races in many a season. With the exception of Manchester United, all the other title chasers have dropped points along the way.
So with potentially seven European places up for grabs, who are the main contenders come the end of the season to be looking forward to European football next season?
Manchester United are currently leading the Premier League by four points with 57 points, 16 wins, nine draws and a single defeat and seem on course for their 19th Premier League title.
It was only the solitary defeat to lowly Wolves that is the blemish on an otherwise very impressive season.
Few would doubt that they will become champions come May, as their nearest challengers seem to be falling by the wayside.
Were it not for their relatively poor away form, that has seen them only win three times on their travels, they would have been away in the distance by now.
Having the experience of leading from the front, Sir Alex Ferguson's team have what it takes to see them through to the finishing line ahead of the pack.
With Wayne Rooney back to his lethal best, the goals will come for United. Supported by Demitar Berbatov, who is also having his best season in a United shirt since his big money move from Tottenham Hotspur, United have a formidable front line.
Regardless of not having their central defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand consistently this season, they still have one of the tightest defenses in the league.
Few would bet against United winning the title this season and even fewer, if not anyone, for them not to be in the Champions League places in May.
It is pretty much a certainty that Manchester United will be playing in a European club competition next season, and as much of a certainty, that it will be the Champions League.
Arsenal are currently sitting in second place in the Premier League with 53 points, 16 wins, five draws and five defeats. Much has been made of the fact the Gunners have been without silverware in too long, given their recent past.
They currently stand only four points behind Manchester United, but the air of invincibility is not there and teams, if set up correctly, can frustrate Arsene Wenger's side. Sometimes they can be even a little one dimensional and there is no concrete 'plan B' if their intricate passing fails to find a breakthrough.
Wenger's aim is to bring the Champions League trophy to The Emirates Stadium for the first time, but the Gunners may well be the best team to never win the Champions League; the closest they came was in 2006 in Paris where they were beaten in a dream final against Barcelona.
Playing football that is scintillating at times and frustrating in others, but always entertaining, Wenger has a footballing philosophy that is based elegant short passing movements and pace. Football that requires the highest level of technical ability.
Maybe not as defensively solid as Arsenal teams of old, the Gunners have a tendency give away sloppy goals. A central defensive partnership that is so vital to any successful team has been strangely elusive to the Gunners.
Wenger's stubborn stance of not going into the transfer market for a top world class defender has hampered Arsenal progress.
The other position that the Londoners have been weak for the longest time now, is the goal keeper. Once again, there are options that their French manager is just reluctant to explore.
One can only imagine what a force Arsenal would be with a top quality goalkeeper between the posts and a solid central defensive partnership in front of him.
The Champions League trophy has become a bit of a 'holy grail' for Wenger and Arsenal, but it is always just beyond their grasp.
With Robin Van Persie back to his best, Cesc Fabregas in midfield and Theo Wallcott on the flank, the Gunners will be the team to push Manchester United for the Premier League title.
It is a foregone conclusion that Arsenal will be playing in Europe next season, and the odds are that it will most certainly be the Champions League once again.
Chelsea are currently sitting fifth in the Premier League with 45 points, 13 wins, six draws and seven defeats. Much, if not, all of the early season gloss has been eroded from their play. They began the season with emphatic victories and looked like they would go on to break all records. The stylish football that their billionare owner wanted, was on show, as well as plenty of goals.
But all this has come to a shuddering halt, with manager Ancelotti admitting that his job is no longer safe. Despite their current form, the financial muscle of Roman Abramovic has transformed Chelsea into a force to be reckoned within the English Premier League and in European football.
The amount of money spent on players during his reign at Stamford Bridge is simply bordering on the ridiculous. But all the millions invested, have yet to bring him what he really craves and that is the Champions League trophy.
In the league, the Blues have had success, but the closest they came to their European dream was in Moscow in 2008, where they lost to Manchester United in an all English final.
The sacking of Jose Mourinho left Chelsea with a managerial vacuum, but in came another heavy weight in the form of Carlo Ancelotti. But arguably, the Blues have lost that defensive solidity and a certain aura that surrounded them under Mourinho.
Ancelotti has a smaller squad to play with but he has added the talents of Fernando Torres and David Luiz, giving them added bite up front and security at the back.
Torres has yet to find his feet at Chelsea and the longer he goes without a goal, the more the pressure will mount. But the Spaniard is a truly outstanding striker and on his day the most lethal in European football; however it may well be that the system employed by Ancelotti does not favour him.
Whether the whole 4-3-3 used by the Blues is dumped in favour of one that suits their record signing is something that could cause controversy and even possible unrest in the camp. But with Didier Drogba reaching his mid-30s and Nicolas Anelka no long in his 20s either, it may well be that the 27-year-old Torres is Chelsea's future.
Possibly, it will be next season that we will see the form that he showed in his debut season in English football with Liverpool.
The early signs are that Chelsea have got a real gem of a player with Luiz. Where fellow newcomer Torres has failed to shine, Luiz definitely has.
Very good in the air, sharp in the tackle and a great reader of the game, Luiz could well go on to become a great world class defender. Add to this his passing ability and comfort on the ball, Chelsea have acquired a special player.
With games in hand Chelsea will hope to claw themselves back into the top three, but games do not mean points, which have to be earned and Chelsea have been making hard work of earn these.
It would be a disaster both financially and morally if the Blues are not in the Champions League next season. Almost certainly this would mean the manager would be out of a job and a major shake up of the players as well.
But as the business end of the season draws ever closer, experience begins to play a big factor in where eventually you finish. And Chelsea have been here before as a club and Ancelotti as a manager, and this factor of having seen all this before can be vital.
Although they are currently outside the top four, with the experience they possess, it would be a real shock not to see Chelsea in the hat for the group stages of the Champions League next season.
And this experience in the home straight is surely enough for them to secure a top three finish and qualify out right.
Manchester City are currently sitting third in the Premier League with 49 points, 14 wins, seven draws and six defeats and experiencing a roller coaster ride of a season.
Brilliant performances are dogged by unexpected slip ups, disappointing draws and player squabbles.
Manager Roberto Mancini has his work cut out holding together a squad of players whose combined transfer fee and wages probably add up to more than the GDP of some small countries.
There is sometimes a case of having a squad that is too deep and this results in exceptionally highly paid players being on the bench or not even making the squad. All this breeds unrest in the squad and requires very careful management.
Mancini is also probably not quite sure of what would be his strongest first 11, that in itself can be a problem. With such a wealth of talent at his disposal, week in and week out, he is left to make some very tough decisions.
Qualification to the Champions League is the priority for the billionaire Abu Dhabi owners of City and Europa League will just not be good enough, especially considering all the investment that has been made to the squad.
A shot at this season's title is almost only a dream now, but a finish in the top four and entry into the qualifying stage of the Champions League should surely be the aim now and the expectation.
But the key to this is consistency and that is what City seem to lack this season. Much has been said that they look like an assembly of highly paid stars, rather than a team of them. And this does seem to ring true from this season's evidence.
However with the amount of potential match winners they can field that can turn a game with a touch of magic in their ranks, City have a real chance of playing Champions League football at Eastlands next season.
Tottenham Hotspur are currently fourth in the Premier League with 47 points, 13 wins, eight draws and five defeats.
Having tasted Champions League football this season, Tottenham players, fans and management will want it again and again.
However, despite a game in hand over the current occupiers of fourth spot and only two points behind them, Spurs may find repeating a feat rather more difficult than achieving it the first time around.
Harry Redknapp has a squad that lacks a little in depth and has himself stated that he should have strengthened it in the transfer window just gone.
Without the likes of Gareth Bale and Luka Moderic in keys games, Tottenham have lacked that cutting edge. In addition, there seems to be a drying up of the goals from their strikers. Their leading scorer is attacking midfielder Rafael Van deer Vaart with 12 goals, assisted by Bale with 11.
Strikers, Peter Crouch (5), Roman Pavlyuchenko (8), Jermain Defoe (4), combining for a mere 17 goals between them. Spurs will need at least one of their strikers to start to hit form or else the results will start to slide.
Furthermore, a consistent central defensive partnership has eluded Redknapp, with injuries to key players particularly Ledley King and now also to Younes Kaboul, as well as long term absentee Jonathan Woodgate.
Despite having the experience of finishing in the top four last season, Spurs just do not look like a team that has what it takes to last the distance, despite not having to play more games in the FA Cup this season.
Tottenham seem to be a team that is currently lacking spark and on a bit of a lull, when this is the time that they should be on the up and up. It almost feels like they have played their best football already and the previous highs were as good as it was going to get.
Spurs will, in all likelihood see European football next season, but it will most likely be in the Europa League.
Liverpool are currently sitting sixth in the Premier League with 39 points, 11 wins, six draws and 10 defeats. The first half of their season was an absolute disaster, which saw the Reds occupy the bottom half of the table and the word 'relegation' was suddenly associated with Liverpool Football Club.
Former manager Roy Hodgson was sacked after only six months before he could do any further damage, but unfortunately, too much had already been done to salvage any hopes of a top four finish this season.
Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, the popular choice as Hodgson's replacement, was installed as caretaker manager until the end of the season. But such has been the revival of the Reds under Dalglish, many would love to see him be given the job permanently.
Dalglish's has galvanized the club, players and fans. All seem now to be pulling in the same direction. There is a real feel good factor in the corridors of Anfield that has not been there for too long.
Even the loss of former Kop hero Fernando Torres to Chelsea has not dampened spirits, as Liverpool went to Stamford Bridge and beat Chelsea on Torres's Blues debut.
Activity in the January transfer window saw record after record fall and in the end Liverpool had acquired Uruguayan star Luis Suarez from Ajax for £28m and Andy Carroll from Newcastle for £35m. The departure of Torres suddenly did not seem so bad after all.
In came World Cup 2010 star Suarez and England's hottest striking prospect Carroll; the mouth watered at the possibilities and suddenly Liverpool were on the rise again.
With Suarez scoring on his debut and putting in a sparkling performance on his full debut, the Kop may just have found a new No. 7 hero. All this without even seeing what their new No. 9 could do!
Carroll has had a great first half of the season with Newcastle, but injury has meant that the Kop will have to wait and see what he has to offer. But if he can reproduce the form he hit at Newcastle, then Liverpool have surely bought England's next striking sensation.
Also encouragingly, so many of the other players have come to life; Lucas, the player the fans loved to hate has become a pivotal cog in the Liverpool midfield, with rock solid performances.
But it is Raul Meireles that has really caught fire in recent weeks; with stunning strikes and all action displays. The Portuguese star is starting to become a cult hero on the Kop and if he continues in this vein, then Liverpool have a true free scoring midfielder in their ranks.
There is no doubt that Dalglish has turned the Reds' fortunes around, but the damage done by Hodgson in the first half of the season is probably going to be just a little too much to claw back.
A top four finish and Champions League football is not realistic, but a place in next season's Europa League is surely a very real prospect now. And if you offered that to any fan at Christmas last year, they would have snapped your hand off.
Sunderland occupy seventh place in the Premier League with 37 points, nine wins, 10 draws and eight defeats and are having a magnificent season overall under Steve Bruce.
The loss of Darren Bent could have spelt the end of Sunderland's dream of European football next season, but Asamoah Gyan has begun to thrive as their main man, even surpassing Bent in the their scoring charts.
Gyan seems to have been liberated and is coming into his own and showing the Premier League that his World Cup exploits where not just a flash in the pan.
Others who have suddenly begun to catch the eye as Sunderland have progressed up the league, are Jordan Henderson, Keiran Richardson, and Danny Welbeck.
With Lee Cattermole providing the steel in midfield added to by the, on loan, Sulley Muntari, Sunderland do not look out of place in the top half of the league.
Steve Bruce has gelled together a group of players that, as a team, are far greater than the sum of their parts.
In a season where they humiliated the Champions Chelsea at Stamford bridge but were earlier themselves put to the sword by bitter rivals Newcastle, Sunderland have had an up and down season.
But with others around them not pulling away from the upper mid table position they currently hold, they suddenly find themselves in the mix for a place in next season's Europa League. And a dream of playing in Europe a real possibility.
Bolton Wanderers currently sit just outside the Europa League places in eighth position with 33 points.
With a strike partnership of Kevin Davies (7) and Johan Elmander (9) contributing 16 goals, Bolton have an outside chance of making it into the top seven.
Owen Coyle is being hailed as one of an emerging group of promising young managers. With an impressive stint at Burnley, Coyle has began to shape Bolton into a more footballing outfit than before.
As well as having played a game more than eighth placed Stoke, which will hamper them, Bolton will be worse for the loss of central defender Zat Knight with knee ligament damage.
The loss of the giant defender will surely dent Bolton's outside chance of European football next season, but with their strikers in form, they could yet sneak into the last of those coveted places.
Stoke City with a game in hand and 34 points are real outsiders to sneak into the European places for next season.
Although really unlikely to do so, and it would require the teams above them to drop points and for them to pick up a lot more than they probably will, it is a long shot.
With a very direct style of play, which depends a lot on aerial bombardment of opponents, expertly worked set pieces and the long throws of Rory Delap, Stoke are a tough side to play against.
But it would be a real turn up for the books should Tony Pullis be able to guide his team into Europe.
Outsiders? Yes. But this is football and stranger things have happened.