ith the Premier League title race proving to be a damp squib, thanks to Manchester United's commanding performance, the battle for the Champions League berths has all the ingredients of a pot-boiler.
Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Everton have been ‘helping’ each other to make the race tighter.
Given the closeness of the race, one of the CL spots may well be decided on goal difference.
Everton, the surprise contender, bounced back from a wobble to clinch a fantastic win over Manchester City recently. But David Moyes’ side has been consistently inconsistent through the season and this may hurt the team badly while negotiating the tough road ahead.
Disappointment would be the overriding emotion when analysing City’s campaign so far. After setting high standards last season, Roberto Mancini’s ‘kings’ have not made a serious claim for the throne this time.
The team, distracted by the Mario Balotelli-Mancini feud and disillusioned by the injuries to Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, has been erratic in the away games. The failure to strengthen the defence during the transfer window has added to its woes.
Last season, City was so inventive in its forward play, its strikers found the target a whopping 54 times.
The fluid patterns, woven by David Silva, Samir Nasri, Aguero and Edin Dzeko last time out, are clearly missing this season. Consequently, the goals have dried up. The reverse against Southampton, Sunderland and Everton, and the dropped points at West Ham and QPR, clearly reflect the below par show overall.
Mancini, however, owes it to Yaya Toure, Pablo Zabaleta and Silva, whose consistent performances have taken the team to the ‘lofty’ No. 2 position despite the inconsistency all around.
With the return of Aguero and Kompany, and an easier run-in than its nearest challengers, City can cling on to the second spot when the final whistle is blown.
Rafa Benitez, undeterred by the torrent of abuse from the fans and the growing speculation of a change of guard after each spluttering encounter, rectified a major flaw in the midfield, which his predecessor Roberto Di Matteo had failed to take note of.
Earlier this season, Chelsea — with Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar in the eleven — was thriving on swiftly-constructed, one-touch interchanges and fluid movements. The first few games even suggested that the team boasted the class and pace to unsettle and unseat the Manchester clubs. But, it has gradually turned out to be unsustainable, as the back has lacked solidity and been ‘too open’ for its own good.
By shifting centre-back David Luiz to the midfield in order to fill the destabilising void there and avoiding all three (Hazard, Mata and Oscar) from starting, Benitez has rekindled hopes. Opting for Victor Moses in the place of Oscar and asking the Nigerian to cling on to the right wing, instead of ‘floating inside’, has worked wonders too. Hazard has been stationed on a wide left position while Mata has eased into the role behind the central striker. The recent results have been encouraging and the team still has a chance of ending a testing campaign on a satisfactory note.
Three reverses in as many games suggest that the team has gone into self-destruct mode. Last season, Spurs had surrendered an eight-point lead to local rival Arsenal, and is in grave danger of fading away again after defeats against Liverpool and Fulham. But, coach Andre Villas-Boas insists that there will be no repeat of last year’s end-of-season collapse. The previous time the team lost two Premier League games in a row, it went on an extended unbeaten run.
The Portuguese’s devotion to preparation and attention to detail has brought the side to this stage after a stuttering start to the season.
His man-management and squad rotation have helped the club stay on course. Villas-Boas, regarded as a motivator rather than just a coach, will ask his players to raise the bar and prove that the defeats are just an aberration. With Welsh wizard Gareth Bale (in pic) in scintillating form and the central-defensive pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson working wonderfully well, Spurs can seal a direct Champions League entry.
The team’s defending has undermined its performance in the big matches so far. Toothless and inconsistent for much of the season, the Gunners’ plight has largely been self-inflicted as they made traps which they themselves fell into! Arsene Wenger's faith in youth, despite spells of promise, never came to fruition.
There is palpable disenchantment among the fans about the direction the club is heading.
For the eighth year running, the club has not added any silverware to its collection. The fans have, however, mentally prepared themselves for a Champions League berth, which looks a realistic goal at this stage.
The Gunners are fortunate that they have completed their engagements with Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool this season. Easier run-ins compared to that of the fellow contenders may work in their favour if they don’t slip up.