The name of the eventual title winners will have a familiar ring to it, yet thanks to the relative demise of Liverpool, for the first time since 2005, we could have a new entrant into the top four. For those clubs with lofty funds and ambition, the steady ascent to the summit of the English game starts with that all important Champions League berth, but four into one won’t fit. The ‘leagues within a league’ theory is not a new or unique one, and after leaving Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to argue amongst themselves, there is definitely another small habitat forming below them in the jostle to join the Premier League ruling class. With Liverpool’s identity crisis meaning they’re straddling both groups, the chasing pack aiming to claim fourth has swelled to a healthy four team prong. Aided and abetted by a ready supply of cash and an insatiable appetite to taste the continent’s top competition, the battle for ‘the new first’ has become just as intriguing as the tussle going on above it.
At present, just three points separate current occupants Tottenham, from Aston Villa lying in seventh, with the Villains having a game in hand on Spurs and two on Liverpool in fifth. The imbalance in points and games played means it is a murky and congested scene around the Promised Land, but what is clearer is the importance to each individual club qualification to the Champions League would bring, for largely differing reasons. Given the financial uncertainty at Anfield, and the potential doomsday consequences of failure, fourth is imperative. Villa’s projected rise needs to continue to prevent stalemate and recline, and do Spurs have the financial footing to not reach the riches of the Champions League given their heavy investment in trying to do so? All will become apparent by the end of May, or perhaps more tellingly, by mid-august. The recurring theme here of course is money – investment and gain. The cyclical concept that money and success seamlessly intertwine and spur each other on is hard to avoid whilst staring up at the omnipotent trio who have dominated our league for the past decade. Money makes the footballing world go round and it is certainly spun faster when you are involved in the world’s most commercially successful club football competition.
The concept of cash, the rewards and chase of, does not necessarily apply to Manchester City of course. Their quest, is one of status and an egotistical drive for supremacy. The ambition of the club’s owners were made loud and clear from an early stage and reinforced by their subtlety-shy mouthpiece Garry Cook. Certainly, sentiment didn’t save Mark Hughes, but what of his replacement? After 17 games in charge, Roberto Mancini’s had a fairly under analysed bedding-in given his utilities, and objectives. Given that the Italian’s first game was on Boxing Day, that lends itself to a semi-rational half-way point of the season barometer on which to judge. Given that he’s contrived to get knocked out of both domestic cup competitions, and has not firmly grasped that much sought after Champions League place, are City any better off than they would have been under Hughes?
This sudden appraisal comes on the back of a last minute equaliser against a side who have won once in their last league 15 games, yet comes just two weeks after claiming three points against the country’s most ungenerous hosts, which fell off the back of three games without a win against Stoke and a turgid draw with Liverpool. In essence, that summarises Mancini’s brief tenure. Indifferent, yet hardly the stuff Sheikh Mansour had in mind when he hired the ‘Scarved One’ to usher his side into fourth. Good or bad appointment?
Treating the cups as a bonus, which is a good job considering he’s overseen their exit in both, the jury must hear conclusive evidence about his league pursuits, and thus to add some science, statistics and speculation to the pot. Mancini has overseen eleven league outings, with six wins, three draws and two defeats. That is a haul of 21 points from a possible 33 – a record amongst their immediate peers only bettered by ‘crisis’ hit Liverpool with 24 points from 12, whilst Spurs returned 19 points in 11 matches, with Villa offering only 11 points from nine. For the mathematicians amongst you, Mancini has 1.9 points per game, which equates to 72 points over a full season, which was the amount Arsenal had to finish fourth last year. It is also, worth noting how it is widely accepted that the points tally for each placing this season will be lower due to increased competitiveness.
Now, all of that means we are no closer off than when we started, which, in its own confusing conundrum perfectly illustrates this desperate deliberation for Mancini’s half-term report. The exercise of course is a futile one, but one well worth a look anyway. The final assessment will be a more straightforward affair dependant on their league finish, when all peripherals will be ignored and no room for a hung jury. Whatever the official lines from the club may be, given the expenditure, their squad, and Mancini’s starting position, fourth was the target. Liverpool have given themselves ground for eviction, whilst City are armed with a squad much stronger than Villa, and containing more all round quality than Spurs. Mark Hughes was never afforded the luxury of being able to complete his task, Mancini will be, and only then can a full, yet simple evaluation begin.