Georgina Turner
Friday July 30th, 2010

The last six Premier League titles have been won by Chelsea or Manchester United, so it is hardly surprising that last season's shoulder-to-shoulder race for fourth place between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City captured the imagination. Fingernails in the north and the south were gnawed short as the two clubs exchanged the lead several times before Spurs took the fourth spot at Eastlands in the season's penultimate game.

In a league haunted by accusations of being predictable at both ends of the table, the coincidence of Liverpool's nose-diving form, Aston Villa's spring slump and Spurs' and City's upturn in fortunes (both recorded by far their best Premier League points totals) made for entertaining viewing. Furthermore, the lack of marquee signings so far this summer suggests we could be in for another pulsating chase to further disrupt a Big Four (Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool) that had previously looked unassailable.

All eyes are on the curtain-raiser between City and Spurs on Aug. 14, with both openly chasing long-term residence in the top four, but Liverpool's opening fixtures (City, Manchester United and Arsenal are among its first five opponents) will instantly test its ability to bounce back, and Villa will want to emerge from a few early fixtures (West Ham, Newcastle, Stoke, Wolves) clutching at least a point for its troubles each time. The coming season has the feel of one that might define the chances of these competitors in the few years ahead, and no one wants to lose ground.

As the incumbent, Tottenham has the most to lose and, with the Champions League playoffs taking place early in the season, could find its enjoyment of May's hard-won prize curtailed before the end of August. For all the headlines, manager Harry Redknapp has yet to take the plunge in the transfer market; City has the advantage of going into the market early and with confidence, and has signed excellent players in David Silva, Yaya Toure, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov.

But its lavish spending (total transfer outlay under Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan is somewhere in the region of $430 million) cranks up the pressure on manager Roberto Mancini to deliver this time out, having come so close in May. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp has highlighted the gulf between his and Mancini's wallets as a huge challenge, but the City coach has reflected on his spending power by pointing out that he will be tasked with more team building than his rivals.

It's a crumb of hope for fans of Villa, Spurs and Liverpool, who finger City as the main threat to their own chances of securing a top-four finish.

"There is good competition for places [at Tottenham]," said Wyart Lane, editor of Tottenham fan site My Eyes Have Seen the Glory. "With a bit of tweaking here and there, I'm sure Redknapp is wily enough to be able to get the best out of the players he has to be there or thereabouts. [City] will have a squad full of stars; the big question will be whether Mancini can blend them into a winning team."

It's a reasonable question to ask -- City's dealings last summer saw lots of cash change hands but its weaknesses didn't disappear altogether, and the squad remains chock full of expensive players who are surplus to requirements. According to the chairman of City's Official Supporters Club, Alan Galley: "If you're going to be bringing in new players, the team needs time to gel, and that's easier said than done. [Mancini] needs a couple of years -- it took Alex Ferguson six years to win the title at United.

"But," he added, "I'm very confident that we'll be in the top four this season; I think we're third favorite for the league with the bookmakers, and that's just about right."

The free flow of cash through the City of Manchester Stadium has certainly put a dent in confidence elsewhere.

"Villa can compete for a top-four place. We have for the last few seasons," said Jonathan Fear, who's in charge of things at Vital Villa. "If we get the right signings this summer, most importantly one or two strikers, I'd say we are one of about four clubs who have a real chance of fourth spot. If I was a betting man, I'd possibly not be putting too much money on us, though."

Not least because a significant chunk of City's cash is earmarked for popular (and increasingly influential) Villa midfielder James Milner; manager Martin O'Neill appears resigned to losing Milner, but holding out for his $47 million valuation risks leaving him in the same muddle that precipitated Juande Ramos' sacking as Spurs manager in 2008. Manchester United didn't offer an acceptable fee for Dimitar Berbatov until the 11th hour, leaving it too late for Ramos to find replacements and by the time Redknapp took over in October that year, Tottenham had made its worst start to a season.

Expectations on Merseyside are similarly tempered after last season's disappointment, even though Roy Hodgson secured the services of England international Joe Cole on a free transfer to kick-start his summer's wheeling and dealing.

"Cole's signing is a good one," said Neale Graham, a lifelong fan who contributes to This is Anfield. "Liverpool should be less predictable with him operating as a No. 10. [But] Liverpool is going to find getting back into the top four a tall order. I expect [City] to finish in the top four. Liverpool will probably need an excellent season coupled with Spurs' squad being stretched and Arsenal losing Cesc Fabregas to rejoin the Big Four. I wouldn't be putting money on Liverpool finishing fourth."

Given the peculiarities of the summer transfer window, and the increasingly competitive jostling among the band of teams chasing it, betting on who'll be sitting fourth in 10 months' time seems ill-advised whichever team you fancy. Even a few weeks before the matter was settled, it was difficult to predict which of Spurs, City and Villa would hiccup first and fatally last season.

Still, it is hard to avoid the same conclusion as supporters of City and its rivals for fourth: It is the team to beat. Chelsea's upward trajectory after the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003 sketches a predictable model for success sooner or later, and though City's approach to spending has been somewhat scattergun since Sheikh Mansour took over two seasons ago, its signings this summer hint at improvements on that front. Certainly a deal has yet to go through with the perplexing complexion of a Richard Dunne-for-Joleon Lescott-swap about it. If that remains the case, Villa, Spurs and Liverpool will have to be cannier and quicker off the mark to avoid chasing shadows.

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