With Everton and Liverpool winning their respective Premier League games over the weekend, the race for a Champions League place looks likely to be the most competitive since UEFA changed the regulations and allowed the fourth placed team access to Europe’s most prestigious competition. Joining the Blues and Reds in the race for the top four are Tottenham Hotspur and David Moyes’ Manchester United.
We have had a look at the relative merits of the four teams involved and look further at the other mitigating factors that could yet play a part in deciding who is in the hat for the Champions League next season. Before we go on, it is also worth noting that it would be foolish to write any of the teams out of the race for the title, but with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City opening a small gap between them and the rest, we have for the purpose of this article presumed that those three will secure the top three places in the league.
Liverpool – Currently 4th on 42 points
Liverpool’s recent form has been mixed, brilliantly dismissing any side in the bottom half of the Premier League, but struggling against those in the top half (Tottenham excluded). The Reds did sit top of the league for a short time over Christmas, but ultimately slipped away after suffering defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea.
The front two of Suarez and Sturridge are Liverpool’s main strength, with the two of them contributing 32 out of Liverpool’s 51 league goals. The pair have rarely played in the same side, with Suarez missing the opening 5 matches and Sturridge absent from 8 games due to injury, but each one has stepped up in the absence of the other to ensure Liverpool have remained potent in front of goal.
The Liverpool defence continues to look second-rate, with the team leaking goals, especially away from home. Stoke, who have struggled for goals for much of the season, scored three on Sunday and could have had more if they had shown a more clinical edge in front of goal.
Liverpool have also struggled against their fellow contenders at the top of the league, with defeats to Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal and draws against Everton and Newcastle. In fact against the teams in the top 10 of the league, the Reds have only picked up 12 points from 10 matches.
At present Liverpool seem to have a little bit of luck on their side. The opening three goals yesterday owed much to Stoke’s defensive errors rather than Liverpool’s attacking brilliance. Whether that luck holds remains to be seen, but the Reds certainly have a weakness at the back, with Mignolet looking more and more suspect as the weeks go by. The real test for Brendan Rodgers team will be their home form against the top sides in the league and whether they are able to regularly beat the Premier League strugglers away from home, especially in the latter part of the season when these sides are fighting for survival.
Definite top four contenders, but need to tighten up at the back if they are to last the pace.
Everton – Currently 5th on 41 points
Everton have been consistent throughout the season and are incredibly difficult to beat. If anything, Everton have suffered from not putting the lengthy winning runs together that the other top sides have managed, with too many draws costing them from being genuine title contenders at this stage of the campaign. The Boxing Day loss at Sunderland continues to hurt, with Everton failing to convert their chances, despite dominating a game they played for 67 minutes with 10 men.
The Blues are relatively tight at the back, with only Arsenal boasting a better defensive record. Despite making a number of changes to the back four due to injury, Everton have remained strong in this area and have kept an impressive 9 cleansheets in the league so far.
Everton have adapted very quickly to the way Roberto Martinez wishes to play and this has seen the Blues dominate the majority of games they have played this season, with an exciting and attractive style of football bringing results, even against the leagues big teams.
Everton continue to struggle to finish teams off, with Romelu Lukaku the clubs only recognised striker to have scored in the league this season. This lack of killer instinct has resulted in the Blues drawing 8 games this season, which is at least 4 more than any of their nearest rivals. The nil-nil draw with Crystal Palace was particularly frustrating and Everton will need to ensure they regularly beat the teams at the foot of the league if they are to remain in top four contention.
Roberto Martinez has brought a real sense of positivity with him to the club and the team’s supporters and players feel anything is possible under his leadership. The Blues have the smallest squad of any of the teams around them and with injuries beginning to kick in, Everton will need to show great resolve to stay in touch.
A lack of depth could cost the Blues, but if Martinez can sign a quality striker to support Lukaku then Everton will be there of thereabouts come the end of the season.
Tottenham Hotspur – Currently 6th on 40 points
Spurs haven’t played that well all season yet still find themselves just 2 points off fourth place. This is testament to the resolve at the club, as they have overcome a change of manager shortly before Christmas and the loss of their best player in the summer.
Tottenham have unbelievable depth to their squad, with almost three players available for every position. Their real strength is the pace in the wide areas, but they do struggle to break teams down, especially when they sit deep and give Spurs little room to play the ball in behind the defence.
Too many players and despite a change in manager it is still unclear who the best eleven players are. This has meant Tottenham have struggled to find any fluency throughout the season.
Tim Sherwood is a relatively inexperienced manager and will find it tough when he comes up against the other top sides. He appears a little naïve and so far has been unwilling to waver from his preferred 4-4-2 formation. This meant Spurs were over-run in the recent FA Cup match with Arsenal and it is hard to see them lasting the pace at the moment.
A good squad of players but they do lack a genuine star. Gareth Bale won them many matches last season, especially when the team didn’t play well, but without his goals it would be a surprise if Spurs finished inside the top four.
Just outside the top four and could finish anywhere from 5th to 7th depending on how the others perform.
Manchester United – Currently 7th on 37 points
It was always going to be interesting to see how David Moyes would fare after replacing Sir Alex Ferguson, but I think very few would have predicted United would be as low down as 7th at this stage of the season. The club have struggled against all the top teams and although they did beat Arsenal, they have found expectations at Old Trafford very difficult to live up to. Having said that, David Moyes hasn’t become a bad manager overnight, and we at Everton know he has a resilient side that will see his team fight to the end.
The real strength at United is the front two of Rooney and Van Persie. Unfortunately at the moment, United don’t seem to be able to get them on the pitch at the same time and this is leaving them susceptible to quality opposition.
It mustn’t be forgotten that United are Champions and they have a squad full of players who know how to win league titles. It would be foolish to write them off and they are sure to put pressure on the teams above them, especially as we reach the business end of the season.
The midfield is poor, lacking a genuine presence and someone who can control a game. Add this to an aging back four and it would certainly appear that Ferguson knew what he was doing when he jumped ship in the summer. They do have the financial resources to sign players in the January window, but it is a difficult time to buy and Moyes isn’t the most dynamic in the transfer market. Expect a frantic deadline day, with maybe one player signed if they get lucky.
Still hard to believe that they would be in the Champions League next season and they will remain a threat until it is mathematically impossible for them to qualify. They also have another trick up their sleeve, with the possibility of stealing the final Champions League place by winning this year’s competition. Although they have a generous last 16 draw, it would be a huge surprise if they went on to win the cup. Having said that, Liverpool did win the Champions League with Igor Biscan in the side, so anything is possible.
Wouldn’t rule them out, but need to put a run of wins together to put pressure on the Merseyside two.