As the race for fourth place hots up, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Liverpool will finish in the coveted fourth Champions League qualifying spot. Currently lying in sixth place in the Premier League and having played one game more than fourth placed Tottenham and two games more than Manchester City and Aston Villa, it looks an increasingly uphill battle. That said, a look into the remaining fixtures perhaps suggests that Liverpool’s run-in is more favourable than that of our rivals.
Manchester City are for me favourites to clinch fourth place, largely due to them having nothing else to compete for and they have six of their remaining nine league games at home where they are yet to be beaten. They have two games in hand on Liverpool and one on Tottenham and despite the saying that you would rather have the points on the board, I fancy City to win their games in hand. This said, they still have to play Everton tonight, as well as their last five games being against Manchester United, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Tottenham and West Ham on the final day of the season, who themselves will be scrapping for their Premier League status. By no means are these easy games for City but if they have genuine aspirations of finishing fourth and even higher next season, these are the type of games they must find a way of winning.
Moving on to Tottenham who have today announced the signing of Brazilian midfielder Sandro from Internacional. They face Fulham in the FA Cup replay at White Hart Lane tonight with the winner facing crisis-club Portsmouth in the semi final. Their Premier League race for fourth run-in is as difficult as Manchester City’s. Trips to Sunderland, Burnley and Manchester City, in what could essentially be a Champions League play-off, are tough enough yet they also have to face Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive matches. Their record against the ‘big three’ is not too impressive and I struggle to see them picking up more than three points against the sides currently above them. When this is considered with their recent spell of injuries to key players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, I think their most realistic chance of having a successful season is to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League after a year without European football.
This leads me on to Aston Villa who have already booked their place in the FA Cup semi final. I struggle to see them finishing fourth as for one reason, I don’t think their squad is big enough and they are suffering from a loss of form, particularly at home where they have won just once in their last six. Their squad is thin in the sense that when Gabriel Agbonlahor gets injured, they often resort to long balls for John Carew or Emile Heskey despite on their day playing attractive football. Their run-in is more favourable than Tottenham’s and Manchester City’s but they must still face City away, the only side yet to be beaten at home this season, as well as a trip to Chelsea and the Midlands derby with surprise package Birmingham City. Much like Liverpool last season, defeats haven’t been their downfall but they are picking up too many draws with the latest at home to local rivals Wolves proving this point. Villa have lost half as many games as Liverpool yet they have won two less. Their inability to turn these draws into wins could prove costly and I can only see them finishing seventh. The return of key players at Everton could even see them push for a top seven finish. As a result, like Tottenham, I see their best chance of having a successful season being an FA Cup win and Europa League football again next season.
This leaves me with Liverpool. A season that offered so much hope after last season’s second place finish saw us crash out of the Champions League early and lose to Arsenal and Reading in the Carling and FA Cups respectively. The two-legged Europa League clash with Portuguese side Benfica is fast approaching and this is the last remaining trophy to aim for. However, given our current financial situation, a fourth placed finish would be received as warmly as a trophy itself. Our run-in is perhaps on paper the easiest out of the four sides battling for fourth with Chelsea the only side left to play above us. Yet our away form this season is woeful; we have only won four games away from Anfield so far. Four draws and eight defeats tells the rest of the story and proves this is where our weakness lies. Birmingham away will be a tough game after they came close to beating us at Anfield and will surely want revenge for David Ngog’s late dive that cost them all three points. However, the trip to St. Andrews aside, our only other two away games are Hull City and Burnley. No disrespect to either side but if we do not take six points from those two games then we simply do not deserve to finish fourth. Our remaining home games see us entertain Sunderland next before three visits from London sides Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham United. On paper, it looks like five or six wins from the final seven fixtures is not unrealistic. Football, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not played on paper.
In a season of ups and (considerably more) downs and despite remaining optimistic it appears that the “Top Four’s” stranglehold over the Premier League is about to be broken for the first time since Everton finished fourth in the 2004-2005 season. The current squad have of course been there and done it before on club football’s biggest stage and this experience could prove vital. If we stay injury free and move on from “Rieragate” then who would bet against the masters of the comeback? Istanbul alone proves that anything in football is possible. I think it will almost likely go down to the wire but despite Rafa’s promise of a fourth placed finish; it is no longer in our hands.