The battle for the fourth and final Champions League place is becoming as intriguing as the race for the Premier League itself. Assuming the status quo at the top of the table remains, and I believe Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal will all finish in the top three again, there are likely to be five teams competing for the coveted fourth spot.
Tottenham Hotspur won the race last time around and will be looking to cement their status as a Champions League side with back to back top four finishes. Manchester City and Aston Villa pushed Tottenham right to the wire and both will expect to be in contention this time around.
The two Merseyside clubs, Liverpool and Everton, will both feel they are capable of finishing fourth and Liverpool in particular will be looking to ensure that their absence from the Champions League is no more than temporary.
Of all of these sides I feel that Everton could well be the best equipped to break into the top four. The protracted transfer of Joleon Lescott definitely had a disruptive effect on the squad this time last year and key players such as Mikel Arteta and Marouane Felliani also missed the start of the season with serious long term injuries.
Once Arteta and Felliani returned to the team Everton firmly established themselves as the fourth best team in the Premiership and were arguably better than Arsenal in the second half of the season. David Moyes’s men will take that momentum into the new campaign and for once the squad has a clean bill of health.
With Steven Piennar and Tim Cahill alongside Arteta and Felliani the club are blessed with four midfielders good enough to get into just about any other team in the country. Phil Neville provides a reliable, if unfashionable, presence at the base of the midfield and if Louis Saha can remain fit he will score at least 20 goals.
Manchester United were extremely reluctant to release Saha and there is no doubt that on his day the former Fulham man is one of the finest strikers in the Premiership. Phil Jagielka has developed into a truly international class centre back and John Heitinga has recaptured some of the form he showed prior to his unsuccessful move to Spain and is equally adept in defence or midfield.
With Tim Howard providing a reliable presence between the sticks and a number of youngsters such as Jack Rodwell and James Vaughan on the verge of the first team Everton look better equipped than any other team to break into the top four.
Local rival Liverpool were poor last season and the departure of influential midfielder Javier Mascherano is hardly going to help their cause. Much will depend on the fitness of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard because without these two in their side Liverpool start to look distinctly average.
Continuity is key at Everton and there is rarely anything approaching a significant turnover of personnel. This gives the existing players an excellent understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and their manager’s favoured system. Everton are difficult to break down, concede few goals and in Cahill, Arteta and Saha have players who are always capable of grabbing a goal.
While Manchester City might have more superstars at their disposal this does not necessarily amount to a better team. Finding a structure within which to accommodate the talents of Emmanuel Adebayor, David Silva, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez will be no easy task for manager Roberto Mancini and is not a process which will happen overnight.
I expect Manchester City to take a while to settle as Mancini attempts to introduce around five new players to the first team while Everton will benefit from their continued stability. The first choice 11 will be identical to the one which finished so strongly last time around and without the distraction of European football Everton will be a force to be reckoned with this time around.
The distraction of European football could be the undoing of Tottenham. The existing squad does not have the necessary depth of talent to cope with the demands of waging a war on both domestic and European fronts. If the team can overcome the challenge of Young Boys and make it into the Champions League then Tottenham’s league form is inevitably going to suffer.
Aston Villa are always on the verge of making the breakthrough into the top four but much of what they have achieved in recent seasons is down to the efforts of manager Martin O’Neill. Whoever eventually replaces O’Neill will have a difficult act to follow and the Irishman’s abrupt departure will severely jeopardise their chances of improving on last season’s sixth place finish.
Milner’s loss will also be felt and while Stephen Ireland might eventually prove to be a more than able replacement there is limited time for the funds which the transfer will raise to be reinvested in the team.
It is easy to overlook Everton. Their wins are rarely emphatic and many of their players have been performing at the same level for so long that they are in danger of being taken for granted. Of all the Champions League chasing teams Everton look by far the best equipped to claim the coveted fourth spot.
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