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
But its lavish spending (total transfer outlay under
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
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
"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
Not least because a significant chunk of City's cash is earmarked for popular (and increasingly influential) Villa midfielder
Expectations on Merseyside are similarly tempered after last season's disappointment, even though
"Cole's signing is a good one," said
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