Race for the Champions League set to be tighter than ever

Thankfully, there are another 18 places up for grabs, and few as hard fought after as the vital third and fourth positions. These are the spots that will probably give two teams a shot at the Champions League, unless Arsenal do not get one and somehow win the Champions League itself. And although the idea Arsenal can win that competition seems rather fanciful, it is no more unlikely than the notion a year ago that Chelsea could do the same. They did. So could Arsenal.

More likely of course is that they will not and that makes the battle for third and fourth so intense. Chelsea hold the crucial third position that guarantees automatic qualification at present, yet it seems entirely plausible that Rafa Benitez’s side will slip out of the top four altogether. They are in shocking form. Failure to beat the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Reading, Southampton and Brentford is the kind of form that a team at the bottom of the league would be ashamed of, let alone the second richest side in the land. Benitez could pay for their travails with his job, yet who else would really do a better job? Chelsea seem too vulnerable defensively at present, and without much of a cutting edge up front, are lacking the tools to build a consistent run of form.

Last season, Chelsea slipped from the top four rather easily in the end, and this team is arguably worse, without Didier Drogba and a year older. Having also played far more games than their rivals, having got to the semi finals of the Carling Cup and been to Japan for the Club World Cup, they are more tired too.

Tottenham are the team right now who look strongest in this race and favourites for third. But then again, we said that last season. Surely there will be some lessons learned that should enable Tottenham to stay ahead of the pack better than they did 12 months ago. And of course Tottenham did still finish fourth last season, and it would be remarkably unfortunate and undeserved if they were to do that again and still miss out.

So what of Arsenal? It is always difficult to tell. The most consistent top four finishers of the lot, experience would suggest they will somehow find a way to finish in the top four. Yet the challenge from Tottenham is better than ever, and their North London rivals could win bragging rights locally for the first time in two decades. If Arsenal can find the kind of consistent form that they picked up last year in February, then they could well rein in the teams above them and finish third once again. But it is a huge ‘if’.

Then there is Everton, the wild card in the pack. Could they, without European football, beat their more illustrious rivals to a top four spot? On their day they can beat anyone, and David Moyes has an excellent side. They usually get stronger as the season goes on, but this year they started the campaign uncharacteristically well. Can that continue? If it can, then the Toffees could shock their rivals. Their Merseyside neighbours Liverpool should not be discounted either. They have the ability to beat most teams in the league and are getting stronger as the season is going on. They have invested better than anyone else in the January transfer market, with Daniel Sturridge already performing well and Coutinho set to add another important option going forward.

It all adds up to an intriguing final few months of the season. This could be the most closely fought battle for the top four in years.