Date: 27th February 2008 at 11:21am
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For a while now, fans following clubs in the top half have been in polite discussion with each other about who might end up where when the curtain falls and the season ends. A quick glance at the table shows that there really isn’t a lot in it, and any one of the top 10 still has a legitimate claim to European football next season (At least if Manchester United and Chelsea don’t let us all down). In this article I am concerned mainly with the Holy Grail that is the Champions League, so apologies to Blackburn and West Ham fans, though if you want to contribute your sections, feel free.

For those of you who are too lazy to avert your gaze the two inches to the right to see the table, here is a crude representation of it:

Position/Team/Pld/Points

1. Arsenal 27 64
2. Man U 27 61
3. Chelsea 26 55
4. Everton 27 50
5. L’pool 26 47
6. A Villa 27 47
7. Pompey 27 44
8. Man C 27 44

Ok, let’s get down to business.

8. Manchester City

Wigan (H)
Reading (A)
Spurs (H)
Bolton (A)
Birmingham (A)
Chelsea (H)
Sunderland (A)
Portsmouth (H)
Fulham (H)
Liverpool (A)
Middlesbrough (A)

Manchester City (and Portsmouth) are certainly underdogs for Champions League qualification, being 6 points off the pace, however, only three behind the teams in 5th and 6th place. The key to City’s season so far has really been their home form, having picked up 30 points from a possible 42 at the City of Manchester Stadium this term. However, just two days ago they were rolled over quite convincingly on home turf by 4th placed Everton. City have certainly gone off the boil in recent weeks, and will probably need to produce a few performances to stay in contention. A look at the fixtures shows that on paper, at least, the potential for a long barren run is quite low, with the clubs toughest fixtures separated between opposition in the relegation dogfight. That said, three tough games against Chelsea, Portsmouth and Sunderland at the Stadium of Light will be a crucial spot if City want to maintain the challenge.

7. Portsmouth

Everton (A)
Birmingham (H)
Aston Villa (H)
Spurs (A)
Wigan (H)
West Ham (A)
Newcastle (H)
Manchester City (A)
Blackburn (H)
Middlesbrough (A)
Fulham (H)

Portsmouth, conversely, find themselves in the lofty position of seventh thanks mainly to their phenomenal away record. The 25 points earned on their travels certainly helped compensate for the run of 7 home games without even a goal. Pompey are in the rather privileged position of having already played all four of the supposed ‘big 4’ twice, and therefore have one of the more comfortable run-ins going into the back end of the season. Games against each of the other teams in contention as well as an away trip to Spurs provide perhaps the most taxing challenge, though due to the nature of the league this season, almost any team not challenging for Europe is fighting relegation, so the last 5 fixtures are perhaps the most significant in the Portsmouth run-in.

6. Aston Villa

Arsenal (A)
Middlesbrough (H)
Portsmouth (A)
Sunderland (H)
Manchester United (A)
Bolton (H)
Derby (A)
Birmingham (H)
Everton (A)
Wigan (H)
West Ham (A)

Villa have had a bit of a yo-yo season this season. 4 wins on the trot followed by 5 games without a win going into 1 defeat in 11. It is difficult to gauge exactly how the team will hold up, though if last year is anything to go by, the Villans will expect a strong finish. Perhaps Villa’s biggest problem is the lack of a clean-sheet in the last 13 games, the last coming against Blackburn in the 4-0 win at Ewood park in December. Certainly the run in for Villa is favourable, with all of their remaining home games coming against teams in the bottom half, as well as an away trip to Derby. Villa’s problems will most likely stem from the remaining grounds they have to visit, with matches against the top two, as well as trips to the three parks, Goodison, Fratton and Upton. Villa’s key fixtures probably encapsulate the final four games of the season, with what may be a key game against Everton, an away trip to West Ham and 2 matches against teams possibly up for the drop, and a local derby.

5. Liverpool

Bolton (A)
West Ham (H)
Newcastle (H)
Reading (H)
Manchester United (A)
Everton (H)
Arsenal (A)
Blackburn (H)
Fulham (A)
Birmingham (A)
Manchester City (H)
Spurs (A)

Liverpool are once again underachieving by their own standards in the league, and though they have a game in hand, they find themselves level on points with the lowly Aston Villa, and behind that ‘small club’ Everton. Liverpool’s big problem this year has definitely been the inability to put teams away. 11 draws this season has left them woefully short of pre-season hopes and expectations. However, there are few who will dispute the talent that Benitez has at his disposal, and that were Liverpool to go on the kind of run that they should be capable of they would blitz the rest of the competition. However, pundits and fans everywhere continue to wait for his run of results to materialise, and it continues to disappoint by not doing so. Liverpool, like Villa, still have to go to the Emirates and Old Trafford, and their record at both grounds under Benitez is poor to say the least. They also still have the distraction of this years Champions League, and that trophy must look rather appealing to Rafa with the current climate at Anfield. Liverpool’s key fixtures span the Old Trafford game through to the match against Blackburn at Anfield, though every game after that has the potential to be rather tough.

4. Everton

Portsmouth (H)
Sunderland (A)
Fulham (A)
West Ham (H)
Liverpool (A)
Derby (H)
Birmingham (A)
Chelsea (H)
Aston Villa (H)
Arsenal (A)
Newcastle (H)

Everton really showed their quality against Manchester City on Monday, and hence currently find themselves lording it over the rest of the clubs in that coveted position. With David Moyes at the helm the club has already once cracked the top 4, but failed to consolidate and was unlucky in their short stint in Europe’s top club competition. However, the outfit now looks much neater, and more attractive than that of a couple of years ago. The club have also managed in the main to avoid any shock defeats this season with defeats to Reading and Newcastle early in the season the worst results the club has suffered. Perhaps the only black mark is the club has picked up only 8 points in games against the current top 8, and only a single point against the 6 leading clubs in the league up to this point. The final four games could once again make or break the chase for Everton, with 3 tough games against top 6 opposition and a potentially hugely emotional encounter at St. James Park.

At this point, you might expect me to wrap this up, but taking a few thing into account, I feel it’s only fair if I include…

3. Chelsea

West Ham (A)
Derby (H)
Sunderland (A)
Spurs (A)
Arsenal (H)
Middlesbrough (H)
Manchester City (A)
Wigan (H)
Everton (A)
Manchester United (H)
Newcastle (A)
Bolton (H)

Yes, yes, Chelsea should be a banker for third place, and are currently still hoping to challenge Arsenal and Manchester United for the title. However, game-in-hand withstanding, the club still only lead Everton by 5 points. If Portsmouth and Manchester City hold hopes of attaining 4th, why shouldn’t Everton aim to outdo Chelsea. Key to this is the fixture between the clubs near the end of the campaign, and preceding said fixture come matches against Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester City (at Home) as well as the game against Manchester United immediately following the game against the blue side of Liverpool. Of course, by that time the team may well be long gone, but there is still a chance, given recent events, that there could be more of an upset on the cards.

So there we go, a little background into the scintillating race for fourth (or even third) that could take us right through to the end of the season. This year is a particularly interesting one for the league, as there looks to be intriguing action in all the different areas; Title Race, Battle for Europe, Relegation, with plenty of contenders in each category. Long may it continue, I say, and let’s hope more can follow the example set by Tottenham in the Carling Cup and really dispel the grandeur of the ‘Big 4’.