The party — to paraphrase the song played by Granada Television after Liverpool, the European champions, had suffered a first-round knockout by Nottingham Forest in 1978 — really is over this time. Liverpool, in the Champions League, have nowhere to go.

Arriving at the last-chance saloon, they peer through the windows to find it in darkness, with upturned chairs on the tables where drinks used to froth and sparkle.

No longer does Europe entail rubbing shoulders with Barcelona and Chelsea. It means having to wait 81 minutes for the goal by David Ngog that, when Rafael Benítez’s men travel to Romania for the second leg against Unirea Urziceni in the Europa League’s round of 32, will bolster the remnants of their confidence.

The way back to the Champions League, whose final Liverpool contested less than three years ago (with sharper finishing, they would have denied AC Milan revenge for the transformation in Istanbul two years earlier), is harder than it ought to be because Uefa, with the unimaginative draughtsmanship that tends to mark football’s regulatory framework, has failed to award the Europa League winners a place in the senior competition the next season.

So Liverpool are in the Europa League for pride and the privilege of being surveyed by two extra match officials. The business of regaining a higher status resumes tomorrow, when they make the short journey to take on Manchester City, for whom the party has only just begun.

City’s plan, since they became a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi United Group in September 2008, has been to buy history. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent already and for Liverpool, with their time-wasting American owners and concerns whether Fernando Torres and even Steven Gerrard can be retained in the face of the challenge exemplified by the new City, the only comfort is that it could be worse; they could be playing Abu Dhabi United.

So here we are again, talking fourth place. Be honest, fellow neutral: when you look at the Barclays Premier League table these days, does your eye go to the top? What I find is that, by late April, it heads for the relegation zone, whereas at this time of year, as winter turns to a semblance of spring, the Champions League qualifying places claim attention. It is the time for the established top four to resume their positions, as Arsenal did last year.

The question of whether Liverpool can do it depends as much on their rivals as themselves. It was relatively easy for Arsenal because Aston Villa, the most convincing contenders for years, lying third on the morning of last February 21, ahead of Chelsea as well as Arsenal, suddenly slumped, taking four points out of the next 27 on offer and ending up sixth.

In essence, Martin O’Neill was short of numbers and the better-endowed clubs took advantage. But this season it is as if everyone is frightened of the Champions League qualifiers. Villa, Liverpool, Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur, City under Mark Hughes and now Roberto Mancini; all keep stumbling.

It is an ideal background against which to judge the latest bad idea to interest the Premier League: that of having four-club play-offs for fourth place. David Moyes, with what read like a splendid example of quick thinking on one’s feet, summed it up.

Quite. Build a hypothesis around Tim Cahill, one of Moyes’s key players, and Everton finishing in the top seven this season. First he would have to squeeze play-offs into the tight space between the 38th match and Australia’s assembly for the World Cup finals. Then he might have to come straight back from South Africa into training for the Champions League qualifiers.

Nor does the idea that the play-offs could be a single match rather than over two legs, with home advantage going to the higher-placed club, appear very well researched. Last season only three of the top seven obtained a majority of their points at home. Chelsea, Everton and Villa all did better away, while Liverpool earned only half of their 86 at Anfield. You can almost imagine teams jockeying for seventh place, strategically losing the odd match.

It looks as if they are doing that already, which is why tomorrow afternoon at the City of Manchester Stadium promises such significance.

If the home side win, they will have an open ticket to elite status. If Liverpool seize their moment, the view that the return of Torres from injury might complete a revival will be strengthened. My hunch is for a draw, plus a Villa win at home to Burnley and a sustained surge by O’Neill’s team towards the prize that eluded them last time.

Forecast: 4th, Villa; 5th, Liverpool; 6th, City; 7th, Tottenham.

Read the article on Times Online

Premier League: Aston Villa my tip in fight for fourth

The party — to paraphrase the song played by Granada Television after Liverpool, the European champions, had suffered a first-round knockout by Nottingham Forest in 1978 — really is over this time. Liverpool, in the Champions League, have nowhere to go.

Arriving at the last-chance saloon, they peer through the windows to find it in darkness, with upturned chairs on the tables where drinks used to froth and sparkle.

No longer does Europe entail rubbing shoulders with Barcelona and Chelsea. It means having to wait 81 minutes for the goal by David Ngog that, when Rafael Benítez’s men travel to Romania for the second leg against Unirea Urziceni in the Europa League’s round of 32, will bolster the remnants of their confidence.

The way back to the Champions League, whose final Liverpool contested less than three years ago (with sharper finishing, they would have denied AC Milan revenge for the transformation in Istanbul two years earlier), is harder than it ought to be because Uefa, with the unimaginative draughtsmanship that tends to mark football’s regulatory framework, has failed to award the Europa League winners a place in the senior competition the next season.

So Liverpool are in the Europa League for pride and the privilege of being surveyed by two extra match officials. The business of regaining a higher status resumes tomorrow, when they make the short journey to take on Manchester City, for whom the party has only just begun.

City’s plan, since they became a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi United Group in September 2008, has been to buy history. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent already and for Liverpool, with their time-wasting American owners and concerns whether Fernando Torres and even Steven Gerrard can be retained in the face of the challenge exemplified by the new City, the only comfort is that it could be worse; they could be playing Abu Dhabi United.

So here we are again, talking fourth place. Be honest, fellow neutral: when you look at the Barclays Premier League table these days, does your eye go to the top? What I find is that, by late April, it heads for the relegation zone, whereas at this time of year, as winter turns to a semblance of spring, the Champions League qualifying places claim attention. It is the time for the established top four to resume their positions, as Arsenal did last year.

The question of whether Liverpool can do it depends as much on their rivals as themselves. It was relatively easy for Arsenal because Aston Villa, the most convincing contenders for years, lying third on the morning of last February 21, ahead of Chelsea as well as Arsenal, suddenly slumped, taking four points out of the next 27 on offer and ending up sixth.

In essence, Martin O’Neill was short of numbers and the better-endowed clubs took advantage. But this season it is as if everyone is frightened of the Champions League qualifiers. Villa, Liverpool, Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur, City under Mark Hughes and now Roberto Mancini; all keep stumbling.

It is an ideal background against which to judge the latest bad idea to interest the Premier League: that of having four-club play-offs for fourth place. David Moyes, with what read like a splendid example of quick thinking on one’s feet, summed it up.

Quite. Build a hypothesis around Tim Cahill, one of Moyes’s key players, and Everton finishing in the top seven this season. First he would have to squeeze play-offs into the tight space between the 38th match and Australia’s assembly for the World Cup finals. Then he might have to come straight back from South Africa into training for the Champions League qualifiers.

Nor does the idea that the play-offs could be a single match rather than over two legs, with home advantage going to the higher-placed club, appear very well researched. Last season only three of the top seven obtained a majority of their points at home. Chelsea, Everton and Villa all did better away, while Liverpool earned only half of their 86 at Anfield. You can almost imagine teams jockeying for seventh place, strategically losing the odd match.

It looks as if they are doing that already, which is why tomorrow afternoon at the City of Manchester Stadium promises such significance.

If the home side win, they will have an open ticket to elite status. If Liverpool seize their moment, the view that the return of Torres from injury might complete a revival will be strengthened. My hunch is for a draw, plus a Villa win at home to Burnley and a sustained surge by O’Neill’s team towards the prize that eluded them last time.

Forecast: 4th, Villa; 5th, Liverpool; 6th, City; 7th, Tottenham.

Read the article on Times Online

Postat de pe data de 31 ian., 2010 in categoria România în lume. Poti urmari comentariile acestui articol prin RSS 2.0. Acest articol a fost vizualizat de 86 ori.

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