With the Premier League on two week break due to the FA Cup, it is always a good time to take stock and look at the league table – new guest blogger, Sam Haase looks at the race for 4th place – that final important Champions League place.
As the Barclays Premier League has passed the half way stage, we are left with an intriguing battle between four teams fighting it out for that elusive final Champions League spot. With no European football standing in their way this season, Tottenham have established themselves as real title contenders; sitting pretty in third, and maybe with a good run could make a real attempt in snatching the title away from Manchester. This leaves us with Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle, with only four points separating Chelsea in third and Newcastle in seventh, setting up a compelling conclusion to this season.
Since the arrival of owner, Roman Abramovich at Chelsea set up they have been regular title contenders and have had no real qualms over their Champions League qualifications. This season sees them face a new challenge, altogether bringing new pressures and stresses to the club that they haven’t been used to in recent years, as failing to qualify for the Champions League has become a real possibility.
I think a risk was taken with the appointment of Villas-Boas in the summer, with no real background and pedigree in football, I was skeptical as to whether he could cope under the immense pressure that comes with the Chelsea job. He hasn’t got Chelsea playing the kind of football we have been used to seeing them play in years gone by, and has often delivered disappointing results, most recently the 1-1 draw at Wigan and 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa.
With an ageing side, the likes of Terry, Cole, Drogba and Lampard have all surpassed 30, and underperforming players, Fernando Torres in particular, AVB has a tough task on his hands to ensure the Stamford Bridge faithful are entertained – with Champions League football in the upcoming season. The teams surrounding them I believe are playing far better football, and if their form continues like this for the remainder of the season, I will be very shocked if AVB remains in charge.
On the other hand, Arsenal have seen their fortunes turn somewhat dramatically this term. After a quite disastrous start, many were calling for the end of Wenger’s reign as Arsenal manager, shame on you all, with pandemonium surrounding the club as to whether they could fully recover from this huge downturn in form. However, Arsenal stuck to their traditions and values as a club and kept their faith in their manager, with Wenger once more displaying his talents and qualities that has brought him league and cup success in this country during his tenure. I genuinely believe that the perseverance and loyalty that the Arsenal board showed Arsene Wenger is to be commended, and is a quality that seems to have disappeared in modern football as we have seen in the past 18 months, with the likes of Chris Hughton, Roberto Di Matteo, and most recently Neil Warnock, all losing their jobs under, shall we say, mysterious circumstances.
Now many of you may argue that their teams were around the relegation zone and that was the reasoning, but all of these managers got their respective clubs to the Premier League, and quite frankly, that is where they are expected to be.
Anyway, back to the point. Robin Van Persie has shown the footballing world that he is a genuine force to be reckoned with, leading Arsenal’s march up the table and putting them in a position that many fans could not have seen happening a few months ago. Champions League football to Arsenal is like, well I can’t think of a profound metaphor so insert your own here, but it would be an absolute shame to see a club like Arsenal miss out on the competition. Personally, I think they are the most likely to take fourth spot; they have the countries, maybe even the world’s most in form striker at the moment and Chelsea really are dipping in form at the moment.
Liverpool in my eyes are genuine league contenders, only if they get their act together mind. They are frustratingly inconsistent, producing sterling victories against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal, yet drop points to the likes of Swansea, Norwich and Blackburn. I mean no disrespect to the latter teams, but they are games that Liverpool should expect to be winning.
It is this topsy-turvy form that finds Liverpool desperately trying to fill that fourth and final Champions League spot. There is no doubt that there is a mass of potential surrounding this young Liverpool side; Carroll is finding his form, Suarez and Gerrard are back in the side regularly and they have a rock of a defence to build upon. However, the inconsistency that has accompanied them thus far has left Liverpool in a precarious position, one that the club is not used to experiencing. Forget the illustrious history that surrounds the club, the golden days of the seventies and eighties are long gone, Liverpool need to focus on now, and now they need to get a run of form together if they have any hopes of playing European football next season. I don’t believe Liverpool have the capability to reach fourth spot this season; their inconsistency will be the root of their problems, but, with another pre-season as a squad together and learning from their mistakes from this season, Liverpool could be a genuine threat next season.
And this leaves us with the real fairytale of the year so far, a real romance in football that reminds us all why we keep faith with it. Two seasons ago Newcastle United found themselves travelling to Plymouth and Scunthorpe. Fast forward two years and they are in a battle to secure themselves a Champions League spot, something I imagine Newcastle fans could never have imagined when they were relegated to the Championship. Alan Pardew has done a tremendous job at the club, passing on his obvious passion for football to his players, transpiring through gutsy, honest and hard-working performances that saw them give to us arguably the best game of the season last year in the 4-4 draw at home to Arsenal. That game summed up everything about Newcastle, Pardew and the attitude of the club as a whole and this hard-work and determination has been rewarded, and deservedly so.
However, as many positives as there are to take out of this remarkable season to date for Newcastle, their top four credentials have been somewhat questioned following their heavy defeat to Tottenham this weekend, coupled with a lack luster performance at Anfield back in December. It is these performances away from home against their top of the table counterparts that leads me to question as to whether they have what it takes to cement fourth spot. Their home form is undeniably superb, recording victories against the likes of Manchester United, but they need to take this form with them on their travels if they are to still be in the picture come April/May time. A surprise package for the season, yet Newcastle have warranted their position in the league table, and if they can bring in players like Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye in the summer, they could become a real force to be reckoned with, even more so than they are currently.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @samhaase