Which Team is Best Equipped to Break Into the Top Four?

September 12, 2007

When fans of the English Premier League refer to the ‘top four’, they are generally talking about Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. However with the influx of the new TV money there appears to be a tide of contenders threatening to break the dominance of the big four.Ever since Rafa Benitez joined and started reshaping a Liverpool side that often failed to deceive into genuine contenders for honours and Roman Abromovich came in and gave Mourinho so much money to spend that they could afford to buy £21 million bench players like Shaun Wright Phillips, the top four places in the league table have generally been filled by those teams each season. Finishing in one of the top four places gains qualification for the Champions League- the two top automatically enter the group stages while the teams that finish third and fourth play a two legged tie against often substandard European opponents.

The last time the stranglehold on the top four was broken was by a spirited Everton side in 2004/05, who finished three points ahead of a Liverpool team distracted by the Champions League – but the Toffees then failed to advance in either the Champions League or the UEFA Cup, losing to Villareal and then getting thrashed by Dinamo Bucharesti. Liverpool still qualified for the Champions League the next season by virtue of them picking up the trophy and being allowed back in by UEFA. Other than Everton, the closest a side has come spoiling the party was the Tottenham Hotspur team of 2005/06, who led a struggling Arsenal side for large parts of the season before succumbing on the last day of the season to West Ham United and thus gifting Arsenal their place in the Champions League qualifiers. While most do not think that another team will break into the top four very soon, with the amount of big spending and the types of players being brought into the Premier League, anything is possible. Here, I will take a look at the four teams that I feel are the most capable of doing so.

Everton Football Club

As mentioned above, Everton were the only team to break into the top four in recent history. While Everton used to be a team whose performances fluctuated wildly (they finished seventeenth the season before, just escaping relegation), it seems the team is finally beginning to gel. While teams like Tottenham Hotspur have started off poorly in comparison, Everton sit a lofty third in the Premiership- ahead of 2005/06 champions Chelsea due to goal difference. In defense, Everton’s only weak position is at right back- the trio of Leighton Baines, Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott form an otherwise stable backline. In midfield, Everton possess both creative players and grafters- Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar can set up chances for the strikers up front while Tim Cahill and Leon Osman both make sure opponents do not have time and space on the ball. Arteta and Cahill are two of the most under-rated player in the Premiership, and as long as Everton keep hold of them, they will do well. Up front, Everton made smart moves in the transfer market- moving to sign Aiyegbeni Yakubu, a striker who has only been outscored in the last four years in the Premiership by Thierry Henry. Everton also have the dangerous Andy Johnson capable of scoring goals, and youth players James Vaughan and Victor Anichebe have turned a few heads with their stellar performances off the bench. Where Everton could be most hit is when the African Cup of Nations comes around- they will lose important players at both ends of the pitch in Yobo and Yakubu, and should Arteta pick up an injury in that time they may struggle. Everton have a good squad, with competent players to come in if injuries occur, and in my opinion are the most likely to break into the top four this season.

Tottenham Hotspur Football Club

This year was supposed to be the year Tottenham Hotspur finally made a strong push to finish in the top four. Having thrown it all away on the last day two seasons ago, Spurs followed that up with poor season, never really challenging Arsenal again and being dragged along at times by Dmitar Berbatov. After being given over £40 million to spend in the transfer market, manager Martin Jol knew that he had to make buys that could help Tottenham challenge this year. Sadly, his buys in the transfer market have been not up to scratch. Having a forward line that consists of Berbatov, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe in attack- three players who scored more than sixty goals between them last year, it was perhaps up front where Tottenham did not need to strengthen. However, Jol thought differently- shelling out a massive £16.5 million to purchase goal poacher Darren Bent scored more goals in the Premier League than any other Englishman. It is in the centre of midfield where Tottenham need some creativity, their sole signing to try and correct this was the purchase of Kevin-Prince Boateng from Hertha Berlin, a player who might become good in the future but is not yet ready to be a starter now. Although Tottenham have had a horrendous start to their Premiership campaign- picking up a mere four points after five games played (with their north London rivals Arsenal still to visit), they cannot be ruled out of the running for fourth place. Arsenal in fact had a similar start last season and went on to comfortably finish fourth, so Tottenham Hotspur fans will be hoping they can do the same. As they still have a decent collection of players- the likes of Berbatov, Bale and King would easily get into the squads of any top four team, they cannot be written off yet; however I would say that should they not get a point at the very least against Arsenal in the North London derby on September 15 th, you can safely rule them out this season.

Manchester City Football Club

After the end of last season, where Manchester City finished 14th and just four points above the relegation zone, talk was of them trying to reach the top ten at best. That was until the takeover by Thai businessman Thaksin Shinawatra. As soon as his £81.6 million bid to buy the club was accepted, Shinawatra brought in ex-England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, and quickly gave him money to spend as Eriksson bought over £40 million worth of new talent. Having already witnessed a bright start to the season, fans are talking about finishing fifth- and whispers slowly begin to arise that a finish one place higher may be possible. Eriksson has made some very good buys- Vedran Corluka and Javier Garrido have shown they are competent defenders, helping the established Micah Richards and novice goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel start the season off with three clean sheets. They also have experienced Richard Dunne in defence, a player that helps command the backline. In midfield, Manchester City have the players for almost any event- the guile of Geovanni matched up with the dynanism of Petrov, the energy of Johnson and the pace and trickery of Elano. Up front, Eriksson brought in Rolondo Bianchi and Valeri Bojinov, two players that can certainly cause problems on their day. Sadly, Bojinov has been ruled out for the next five months but they should still have firepower to see off most teams. While the most optimistic fans of the club may think it possible this season, I feel it is still a year too soon for the Eastlands club, and while they will compete for the UEFA Cup places getting fourth will be a gap too far to bridge.

Newcastle United Football Club

Characteristics of Newcastle United Football Club in the past included a selection of overpaid, lazy players as well as a shambolic defence. That is true no longer- new manager Sam Allardyce has taken care of that. After being appointed manager soon after he left Bolton, Allardyce completely revamped the set of players he deals with strongest- the defenders. Immediately moving in the transfer market to sign David Rozenthal, Jose Enrique. Claudio Cacapa and Habib Beye, the new Newcastle defence looks a lot more solid that those of previous seasons. The manager also signed ex-Manchester City hothead Joey Barton and Abdoulaye Faye from Bolton to add some bite and steel in midfield, and wrapped up his transfer dealings by signing Alan Smith from Manchester United and Mark Viduka on a free transfer from North East rivals Middlesbrough to play up front. Michael Owen seems to be finally fit as well, and will surely score goals if given the chance. As Newcastle’s biggest problem in the past was defence, and having Allardyce as a manager means “good defence” in football terms, it seems that their biggest problem will cease to exist as long as Allardyce is there. Newcastle have started the season well, currently level on points with last year’s champions Manchester United while having a game in hand. Looking far better than the team that was only able to finish 13 th last season, Newcastle’s team has being mentioned this year as one of the teams capable of breaking into the top four slots, and quite rightly too. On their day, Newcastle are near impossible to deal with and as they are still a youthful side, they will only get better and better. In my opinion Newcastle have just as much of a chance as Tottenham this season, and should they hit a proper run of form and good luck with injuries, they will be right up there in the table.

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