Premier League Top Four: Who Will Be in Champions League Spots at Halfway Stage?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2012

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09:  Everton player Sylvain Distin can only watch as Spurs player Gylfi Sigurdsson gets in a shot at goal during the Barclays Premier game between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park on December 9, 2012 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Finishing in the top four of the Premier League, and with it qualifying for the following season's Champions League, has become just about as much of a success for some teams as winning a trophy.

Indeed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger earlier this year stated that "the first trophy is to finish in the top four," and given the financial rewards it can bring and the cache associated with competing in the biggest club competition in the world, it is hardly surprising that coaches take such a view.

In the as-it-stands Premiership table, Manchester United and Manchester City already look to be making the title race a straight two-way fight, and while Chelsea are 10 points off the top they still seem as though they have enough of a strong squad to secure third place.

The final spot though is something of a free for all given the rebuilding nature of at least two sides, Arsenal's drop in consistency and the added excitement of good seasons from West Brom and Everton so far.

The Christmas period is a very busy one in the Premier League and teams who put a run of wins together can very quickly see their aims for the second half of the season come a little bit closer—while those who suffer a dip in form can find themselves out of the running for trophies, European places or even survival.

Here's how the top four challengers have to cope between now and the midway point of the season on Boxing Day.

Everton, currently fourth place with 26 points

David Moyes' men have had a great start to the season, giving the blue half of Merseyside hope of making a genuine challenge for the Champions League spots. Usually, the Toffees are stronger in the second half of the campaign so if they continue that approach, they're certainly going to go close.

The next three fixtures sees Everton go away from home twice, visiting Stoke and West Ham, before a home match against Wigan on Boxing Day.

Stoke is of course a notoriously difficult place to go; these two sides are in fact the only teams who remain unbeaten at home in the Premier League. Everton will fancy their chances of leaving with a point from one of their two away fixtures though and should be able to beat Wigan at home.

What do they need: Another good signing in January could make a big difference to David Moyes' squad, especially if it's a strong midfielder. Essentially though, Everton doing as well in the second half of the season as they have so far could see them go very close.

Tottenham Hotspur, 5th, 26 pts

Spurs have been rather inconsistent under Andre Villas-Boas; no great surprise given the switch in tactics and formation, as well as something of a mini-overhaul of the squad.

They've been hit-or-miss on the road but are scoring plenty of goals; much of their attacking play comes down the flanks though and with Gareth Bale out injured it's a delicate balancing act for the manager to bring him back in time for the rush of fixtures and giving him long enough to recover.

Home games against Swansea City and Stoke City provide an opportunity for Tottenham to bring a little bit of consistency back into their game though, and they should take six points here.

A trip to Sunderland could swing either way; the Black Cats have been simply woeful but Martin O'Neill's men have to start performing at home sooner or later; that match could be a draw.

What do they need: Consistency. Spurs look to have the fixtures to take them into fourth spot over Christmas, and if they can add another player in January to what is a relatively strong-looking squad then all Villas-Boas will want is for them to show top form each game.

West Bromwich Albion, 6th, 26 pts

The third and final side level-fourth in the league is West Brom. After a great start which won new boss Steve Clarke a lot of plaudits, the Baggies have lost three games in a row now.

Back to back home games against West Ham and Norwich give West Brom a chance to arrest that slide, though the Canaries in particular are on a fantastic run recently. One win from the two games would be enough to assuage fears of a complete slide.

In the third game West Brom face a trip to QPR (Queens Park Rangers); the Hoops will be desperate for home wins but West Brom can trouble them enough to claim a point at least.

What do they need: What are their aims? West Brom have come a long way very quickly, and don't have the squad to compete in the Europa League unless they add another four players for next season, so perhaps that isn't what they have in mind. A seventh place finish would do very nicely indeed, so just keep working hard and playing well.

Arsenal, 7th, 24 pts

The Gunners are looking like they are in all sorts of bother having slipped out the top four and being knocked out of the League Cup by League Two outfit Bradford City.

Are things really that bad though? Arsenal are just two points off top spot and, despite the fact they haven't won a trophy in seven years, nobody would really have given victory a second glance if the penalty shoot-out had gone the other way midweek.

A single win is potentially enough to send them back up to fourth.

Arsene Wenger's men have three winnable games ahead of them, though whether they take maximum points is another thing. Two away games to Reading and Wigan are followed by West Ham at home. Nine points is definitely possible, but seven would also represent a decent return given how close things are at the top end of the table.

What do they need: Wenger needs to find his strongest and most reliable team, and get them winning games again. Fans want to see a big signing in January but it needs to be one who can impact the side in the right way. Simply put, Arsenal need the top four.

Liverpool, 10th, 22 pts

The Reds have lost just one of their past 11 league matches and are quietly moving themselves back into contention.

Back-to-back home games against Aston Villa and Fulham, both with just one win away from home this season, should yield a full six points for Liverpool if they have aspirations of reaching the group ahead of them.

A tough away trip to Stoke on Boxing Day has yielded good results in the past, but Brendan Rodgers would likely regard a point as a good result—as indeed it is. If Liverpool can get to January and only be a small handful of points off the top four places, Rodgers will regard it as a very successful first half a season.

What do they need: To get their targets right in January. Liverpool are going to spend, the only questions are on who and how many. If they can add goals and continue improving as they have done since the early part of the season, it could yet be a very interesting campaign for them.


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