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The quest for Champions League qualification

60 points. Since 2000, the team with the lowest points total after a fourth place finish was Liverpool in 2004 on 60 points. However, it is worth noting that this was the year of ‘the Invincibles’, which may have had a part to play.

68 points. Not so easy now is it? This is more likely what it takes to get to the ‘Promise Land’ these days. The Premier League has become a lot more competitive; over the last five seasons (not including the current), this is the lowest points total which Arsenal achieved in 2011. This Arsenal team got 19 wins, 11 draws and 8 losses, meaning current fourth place side Liverpool would have to achieve 7 more wins and 8 draws to get this total, which may or may not be enough to retain their position.

This article was written by Luke Bosher. Follow him on Twitter @BosherL

One would think that 68 points should be enough given that there are definitely 6 or 7 (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton) teams vying for the top 4, and 2 possible challengers (Newcastle and Southampton), and the fact that 5 of these 9 teams already have at least 5 losses after 19 games. However, we are 50% of the way through the season and Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton all have above 34 points, which is 50% of 68 points, so it would appear that 68 points may not cut the mustard.

Long gone are the days of the domination of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Those teams, between the years 2002 and 2009 finished in the top 4 five times, with only two occasions where another team managed to secure a top 4 place, and even when that happened, the team that failed to achieve top 4 status finished 5th. Nowadays, the top tier of English football is much more open, with many teams looking to qualify for the Champions League, and finishing in the top 4 in the Premier League is something that is more and more coveted by teams and fans alike.

This season is maybe one of the most open seasons there has been in a while. Although this is said at the start of almost every season, it is most definitely true of this 2013/14 campaign. Arguably the current aforementioned top nine teams are in contention for a top 4 finish, meaning that nearly half the league has their eye on the Champions League. It may be said that Newcastle and Southampton, 7th and 8th respectively, were punching above their weight earlier on in the season, Southampton in particular, and that finishing in the top four is not one of their primary objectives so they may be discounted by some. As well as these, Everton are another team that may not be considered direct challengers, consistently finishing below the top 4 over the last decade (bar one season). However, Everton this year have a very strong squad, have also kept the joint most clean sheets in the league and boast a good run of form and results, and I believe if they continue in this way they will be fighting for Europe, come the end of the season.

But how do teams like Everton get these points I hear you ask. I believe that squad depth is one of the key elements of a top team. This is why Chelsea and Manchester City are still viewed as the teams rivalling for the title, and Arsenal, even though they were at some point 7 points clear at the top, are still regarded as nothing more than a top 4 team. For example, an issue that has been brought up by many is Arsenal’s strikers, or lack thereof. Olivier Giroud is doing well, but is one of those players that I think needs multiple chances per match in order to score and doesn’t perform against big teams or in important games. His challenge comes in the form of Nicklas Bendtner, who, if we’re being serious is not Top 4 quality. This lack of strikers means that Arsenal could be in serious trouble if injury strikes them, and let’s face it, goals win games. You may argue that Chelsea’s strikeforce is somewhat below par, but can you say that if injury hits they’ll struggle? Definitely not. They, more so than anyone else in the league have depth in every position – even their reserve goalkeeper has 504 Premier League games under his belt. This is the kind of depth you need if you’re to challenge for a top 4 place, and indeed the title.

Having said that, depth is useless if you lack quality. This is prevalent in the squad of Manchester United, currently under-performing in the league. You would say that Anderson, Carrick, Cleverley, Jones, Fletcher, Kagawa, Fellaini and Giggs are an ample amount of central midfielders to have when a team usually uses about 3 or 4 centre-mids per game (incl. subs). However, can it be argued that all of those players are up to the standard of playing in the Champions League? In my opinion – no. Quality is obvious in terms of being an important element of a football match, but that doesn’t make it any less of a pivotal component in a squad that is fighting to get into the top 4.

‘Being determined’ is often a phrase that is thrown around in school and in the workplace as being a ‘key skill’ and a ‘valued asset’, but is something that I believe can be very helpful when looking to achieve top 4 status. Determination can be put in the same category as experience, both of them culminating in self-belief; the team believes that it can finish in the top 4, it believes that it can win that important game etc. Again using Arsenal as an example, they have a squad of players where pretty much all of them have never won a trophy, and therefore don’t have that experience of feeling the pressure to grind out a result and finish the season when fatigue starts to kick in and the pressure piles on. This can be seen by their lack of trophies in recent years, and is also relevant to getting a top 4 finish, which has ironically been branded as somewhat of a trophy for Arsenal in recent years.

This season it is extremely hard to predict what will happen in regards to final positions in the table, and whilst many may disagree, I predict that Manchester United will still make the top four. They haven’t failed to achieve 3rd place or higher since the Premier League began in 1992 and even though their squad is lacking in many areas, it is still almost the same team that won the league last year, so they should make the cut this time round. Although this may be the last season where they can just rely on their experience, pedigree and reputation as teams have proved that you can win against them, in their own back yard nonetheless. Joining them will almost certainly be Chelsea and Manchester City. It has been said that whichever team finishes above the other will win the league, and this is probably true. They have very large squads and is a case of quality as well as quantity, as their so-called reserve players would probably get into most sides. In fact, it’s been claimed that a ‘Chelsea Loanees XI’ would be a mid-table side in the Premier League.

Obviously there is only one spot left in my top 4, and whilst Tottenham fans and pundits alike fancied them for the title, I don’t think they will even make the top 4. The departure of Andre Villas-Boas went down well with most Spurs fans, but 8 bosses (not including caretakers) in the last 12 years and only 2 top 4 finishes shows us that Spurs, unlike Chelsea for instance, are not a club that can afford to chop and change their manager whenever things get a bit rocky. Spurs need stability, both in their actual squad and in their management before they can challenge for top 4.

Liverpool have surprised many this season, with Luis Suarez’s performances catching the eye, but if you take Luis Suarez out of their team then you have to say their squad is rather average. Maybe their starting eleven is top 4 worthy, but as aforementioned depth is key, and Liverpool don’t really have it. Before Suarez’s introduction after his ban, Liverpool sat 5th in the table, and whilst that was only 5 games into the season, it goes some way as to telling us that they struggle without him. Liverpool haven’t finished in the top 4 since 2009, so none of their players really have experience of the pressure of needing a win or draw at a vital time, which is another thing the bodes badly for them.

Like the North London counterparts, many Arsenal fans have dreams of the title, and personally I think that’s a little over-ambitious. Top 4 is probably where they’ll finish this season; they need to add a bit more quality to their team before they can realistically think about the title. Arsenal are another team with consistency, never since 1996 have they finished lower than fourth, and then Arsene Wenger took over. This was a season where many thought Arsenal might finally lose their top 4 place, but the surprise addition of Mesut Ozil to their side on deadline day has meant that they are a force to be reckoned with, and with only 3 losses this season, they look like a side hellbent on finishing high in the table.

With 2014 now upon us, and another 5 months of breathtaking Premier League football, the Quest for Champions League qualification from the Premier League this season is going to be one to savour.

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