The Race for Fourth

24 03 2010

As the race for fourth place hots up, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Liverpool will finish in the coveted fourth Champions League qualifying spot. Currently lying in sixth place in the Premier League and having played one game more than fourth placed Tottenham and two games more than Manchester City and Aston Villa, it looks an increasingly uphill battle. That said, a look into the remaining fixtures perhaps suggests that Liverpool’s run-in is more favourable than that of our rivals.

The Champions League Trophy: The Race for Fourth.

Manchester City are for me favourites to clinch fourth place, largely due to them having nothing else to compete for and they have six of their remaining nine league games at home where they are yet to be beaten. They have two games in hand on Liverpool and one on Tottenham and despite the saying that you would rather have the points on the board, I fancy City to win their games in hand. This said, they still have to play Everton tonight, as well as their last five games being against Manchester United, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Tottenham and West Ham on the final day of the season, who themselves will be scrapping for their Premier League status. By no means are these easy games for City but if they have genuine aspirations of finishing fourth and even higher next season, these are the type of games they must find a way of winning.

Number One: Mancini's side are in pole position to challenge Europe's elite.

Moving on to Tottenham who have today announced the signing of Brazilian midfielder Sandro from Internacional. They face Fulham in the FA Cup replay at White Hart Lane tonight with the winner facing crisis-club Portsmouth in the semi final. Their Premier League race for fourth run-in is as difficult as Manchester City’s. Trips to Sunderland, Burnley and Manchester City, in what could essentially be a Champions League play-off, are tough enough yet they also have to face Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive matches. Their record against the ‘big three’ is not too impressive and I struggle to see them picking up more than three points against the sides currently above them. When this is considered with their recent spell of injuries to key players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, I think their most realistic chance of having a successful season is to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League after a year without European football.

Defoe, with 17 Premier League goals, is out for three weeks.

This leads me on to Aston Villa who have already booked their place in the FA Cup semi final. I struggle to see them finishing fourth as for one reason, I don’t think their squad is big enough and they are suffering from a loss of form, particularly at home where they have won just once in their last six. Their squad is thin in the sense that when Gabriel Agbonlahor gets injured, they often resort to long balls for John Carew or Emile Heskey despite on their day playing attractive football. Their run-in is more favourable than Tottenham’s and Manchester City’s but they must still face City away, the only side yet to be beaten at home this season, as well as a trip to Chelsea and the Midlands derby with surprise package Birmingham City. Much like Liverpool last season, defeats haven’t been their downfall but they are picking up too many draws with the latest at home to local rivals Wolves proving this point. Villa have lost half as many games as Liverpool yet they have won two less. Their inability to turn these draws into wins could prove costly and I can only see them finishing seventh. The return of key players at Everton could even see them push for a top seven finish. As a result, like Tottenham, I see their best chance of having a successful season being an FA Cup win and Europa League football again next season.

The strain begins to show: O'Neill looks on as Villa drop two points against Wolves.

This leaves me with Liverpool. A season that offered so much hope after last season’s second place finish saw us crash out of the Champions League early and lose to Arsenal and Reading in the Carling and FA Cups respectively. The two-legged Europa League clash with Portuguese side Benfica is fast approaching and this is the last remaining trophy to aim for. However, given our current financial situation, a fourth placed finish would be received as warmly as a trophy itself. Our run-in is perhaps on paper the easiest out of the four sides battling for fourth with Chelsea the only side left to play above us. Yet our away form this season is woeful; we have only won four games away from Anfield so far. Four draws and eight defeats tells the rest of the story and proves this is where our weakness lies. Birmingham away will be a tough game after they came close to beating us at Anfield and will surely want revenge for David Ngog’s late dive that cost them all three points. However, the trip to St. Andrews aside, our only other two away games are Hull City and Burnley. No disrespect to either side but if we do not take six points from those two games then we simply do not deserve to finish fourth. Our remaining home games see us entertain Sunderland next before three visits from London sides Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham United. On paper, it looks like five or six wins from the final seven fixtures is not unrealistic. Football, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not played on paper.

The fitness of Gerrard and Torres is vital if Liverpool can maintain their push for fourth.

In a season of ups and (considerably more) downs and despite remaining optimistic it appears that the “Top Four’s” stranglehold over the Premier League is about to be broken for the first time since Everton finished fourth in the 2004-2005 season. The current squad have of course been there and done it before on club football’s biggest stage and this experience could prove vital. If we stay injury free and move on from “Rieragate” then who would bet against the masters of the comeback? Istanbul alone proves that anything in football is possible. I think it will almost likely go down to the wire but despite Rafa’s promise of a fourth placed finish; it is no longer in our hands.

Mark Jepson

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So Long Rafa

15 01 2010

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Twelve points adrift in the Premier League, out of the Carling Cup, failure to progress in the Champions League and now out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle after an embarrassing defeat to Reading at Anfield. We should take nothing away from Reading as they deserved their win, but where does this leave us now? Shane Long’s extra time winner leaves us looking at the long road ahead.
 
In the space of nine months we have gone from title challengers, and almost winners, to scrapping for fourth place with Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hostpur. Furthermore, Birmingham, Sunderland and Stoke are all cranking the pressure on us. In these nine months, not too much has changed. Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso have left but they have been replaced by Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Whilst the off-field troubles are not helping, it’s Rafa Benitez’s tactics and team selection that are coming under scrutiny once again. His insistence on playing out of form players such as Emiliano Insua, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt week in, week out is not helping. Insua for one not only looks out of form, but looks rock bottom for confidence. In fact I would go as far as saying that Gordon Brown will be more confident of delivering Labour a fourth consecutive election win than Insua will be of delivering a good performance for Liverpool. His positional sense, heading ability and lack of pace all leave a lot to be desired but the squad is too thin for changes. Players are leaving so that the wage bill can be trimmed but replacements are not forth coming. Our owners insistence on selling players before we can buy is having a harmful effect on the club. In January Andrea Dossena has gone back to Italy for a small loss, and Andrey Voronin has also finally left for Dynamo with Ryan Babel and Philipp Degen also open to moves. Yet just Argentina winger Maxi Rodriguez looks like arriving in this window and after last nights toothless performance, he must be wondering what on Earth he has signed up for. An already thin squad is getting thinner. Take into account the injuries we’ve had and things do not look like getting any better. Once Fernando Torres gets injured, it’s left to David N’Gog or Dirk Kuyt to fill the void and provide the goals and quite frankly, they’re just not up to task. Performances like last nights will also leave Marouane Chamakh wondering whether a Bosman move to us is in the summer really is a good idea.
 
At least Rodriguez has signed to give us some much needed width as once again we are looking desperate in the wide areas. I don’t wish to keep singling out Kuyt as I think he is a good player, but creative right winger he is not. The same goes for wide left as Babel doesn’t look interested anymore and Riera keeps picking up injuries. Aside from Jose Reina, Gerrard and Torres we look distinctly average. Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League means offers may have to be considered for our last remaining top players which is why qualification is imperative. Each loss that we suffer tightens the rope that is hanging around Rafa’s neck.
 
Yet as mentioned, the financial situation at the club means that sacking Rafa is almost impossible at this time as he has not long started a new five-year deal. As well as this, who could do a better job with the limited resources he would have? Whilst I am not suggesting that Rafa has not had money to spend, when you compare it to what our Champions League rivals are spending it looks an unenviable job guiding us to next season’s competition. Apart from Guus Hiddink, there isn’t really an abundance of managerial talent waiting for jobs although I assume Gary Megson is looking for an immediate return to management. He might be in our price range too. Although we all dream of the Jose Mourinho’s of this world managing our club it seems that managing Liverpool in this day and age is not as desireable as it once was. 
 
So after Shane Long’s winner last night, our FA Cup exit leaves me saying ‘So Long Rafa’, we will never forget Istanbul 2005 and Cardiff 2006 but perhaps you have taken us as far as you can.
 
Mark Jepson







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