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The Four-midable battle for Champions League qualification in the Premier League


As any season winds down to an enthralling finish  in an ideal world), most of the attention is drawn towards the top and the bottom. The mid-table clubs have successfully staved off the stench of relegation and are already looking forward to the new season. Away from the glory chasing big boys and the clubs who are scrapping for their lives at the bottom, there is usually another dimension in the drama that is a Premier League season. After all the promised land of Champions League football awaits the teams who finish in the top 4.

Four-Middable

Growing up as a Premier League fan in the mid-noughties, the Champions League spots were pretty much a foregone conclusion. “The Big 4” was the unimaginative term coined for the quartet of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. In fact from the 2005-06 season to the 2008-09 season the same 4 sides qualified for the Champions League, and indeed excelled in it.

The landscape of the Premier League has changed since then and the 2008-09 season was indeed the last time “The Big 4” all qualified for the Champions League in the same season. Manchester City have progressed from mid table mediocrity to title contenders in a short space of time while Spurs too have enjoyed their fling with Europe’s elite competition in the recent years.

The footballing allure of Champions League football is obvious to all fans. The opportunity to lock horns with Europe’s elite, the wonderful atmosphere of those famous Champions Leagues nights and if your team makes it past the group stage, then the unique nervous excitement only a two-legged knockout fixture can bring. We can all agree that the Champions League is a competition that fans, players, and the club owners alike want to thrive in.

Another fact is that if you’re a club looking to attract top quality players, then you want to be playing in the Champions League. Sure there are numerous other factors that determine how attractive a destination is ( $$$$$ being near the top ), but as a club, the allure of Champions League football will most certainly help entice targets.

For the noveau-riche clubs (also going by the alias sugar-daddy clubs), Champions League football is the first objective in their “projects”. A constant presence in the European circuit not only helps attract a better standard of players but also helps to establish the marketability of a club. The “brand value” of the club rises and like it or not, that plays an integral role in the development of a club in modern football. There is of course a direct financial benefit from participation too. According to UEFA’s financial distribution report, the 32 Champions League participants took home a combined sum of almost €904m between them with winners Real Madrid alone pocketing a cool €57.4m.

Last season saw City eventually triumphing by two points over Liverpool with Chelsea and Arsenal completing the Champions League contingent from the Premier League. Clubs have invested heavily in the summer and improvements within several squads mean that more teams than ever before will feel that they have a serious chance of qualifying for next season’s edition of Europe’s elite competition.

Leading the pack

Chelsea finished third in 2013-14 but Jose Mourinho’s side are the new favourites to win the league at 3.80 with Betfair. The manager has moved quickly to resolve issues within the squad and it will be particularly interesting to see new signing Diego Costa join up with an old favourite in Didier Drogba. The squad was already strong on paper and the signings of Filipe Luis and Fabregas along with the afore-mentioned duo have certainly made Mourinho’s men a force to be reckoned with. Last season, Mourino said he had a team but no striker and his summer dealings certainly seem to have solved that particular problem.

In contrast, Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has not moved to sign a centre forward but there are injury concerns over 50% of his existing strike force. Argentinian Aguero was plagued by hamstring problems in 2013-14 and those carried on into the World Cup, leaving City supporters with concerns that the striker won’t be ready for the new campaign. One man who will definitely miss the big kick off is Alvaro Negredo who faces up to three months on the sidelines with a broken foot. That may leave the team with an unfamiliar pairing of Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic but Pellegrini is adamant that he doesn’t need any reinforcements up front. The Champions have had a relatively quiet summer so far with Caballero, Sagna and Fernando all representing solid acquisitions.

Bubbling under

Liverpool pushed hard for their first Premier League title but the sale of Luis Suarez may well affect their hopes for the new campaign. At one stage last season, the Uruguayan was averaging better than a goal a game and Brendan Rodgers will have a tough job replacing a man who ended the campaign with 31 strikes in 37 matches. Rodgers has brought Rickie Lambert and 19 year old Belgian Divock Origi into the club but the manager may need to make another marquee signing in order to provide tangible support for Daniel Sturridge up front.

Elsewhere, Arsenal will be confident of enjoying a more positive campaign now that Alexis Sanchez has signed from Barcelona. Debuchy has been snapped up to replace Sagna and Chambers is one for the future. Ospina is another shrewd signing and will provide much needed competition for Szczesny. The Gunners were criticised last season for not signing a main striker so the Chilean should be capable of producing more goals at the Emirates. And if the transfer mill is to be believed then they aren’t done yet.

Arsene Wenger will also consider himself unlucky with injuries last year after Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all suffered long term problems but the fact is that if Arsenal have aspirations of landing the title, their dismal record against the top sides has to improve.

Resurgent Red Devils

Like Liverpool in 2013-14, Manchester United will benefit from not having to play midweek European competition. Don’t get me wrong, they’d be gutted at having missed out on European football but their players will not have to travel to far-flung areas of the continent on a Wednesday or Thursday night and as such, they should be refreshed for the league schedule at the weekend.

New manager Louis Van Gaal has also been busy in the transfer market, bringing in Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera but the team still needs a quality centre back to cover for the loss of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, especially if United continue to sport 3 centre-backs as they have in pre-season. United should certainly improve on that seventh placed finish last time out but perhaps the manager needs to invest more heavily in the summer window.

Hopeful outsiders

Everton and Spurs might both argue that they have a chance of Champions League qualification. Roberto Martinez’s side had a strong campaign and the acquisition of Lukaku is brilliant move. The permanent signing of other loanee Barry and Besic also stands them in good stead. As for Spurs, this looks set to be a transitional season under Mauricio Pochettino as he rebuilds following the arrival of seven new players 12 months ago. The Swansea duo of Michel Vorm and Ben Davies have been added to the squad. With plenty of contenders, another big team is set to miss out on Champions League qualification this time around.


 

Arnab Ray

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