Soccer: The fight for fourth

Harry Redknapp. Photo / AP
Harry Redknapp. Photo / AP

Three Premier League teams are chasing the last Champions League spot. These are the contenders.

TOTTENHAM

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THE FORMBOOK: After a remarkable autumn, in which Spurs won 10 out of 11 league games, they are starting to look heavy-legged. Harry Redknapp's charges have won just two of their last eight in the league, and have lost their last three straight. None of the performances in those games were dreadful; but Tottenham do seem to have lost some of that pace, edge and nerve they played with before Christmas.

THE MAN IN CHARGE: Redknapp has spent much of this season in the limelight: first he had to clear his name over charges of tax evasion, then he had to cope with everything that comes with being the presumed England manager-in-waiting. Redknapp fiercely denies that the England talk has distracted his players; perhaps his changing systems has done that instead: Spurs experimented with Gareth Bale as an inside forward over the winter, and have recently returned to 4-4-2, without much success.

REASON TO BE CONFIDENT: Tottenham have the best starting XI of any of these three sides. For the first time in 20 years, the best midfielder (Luka Modric) and best winger (Bale) in north London both play in white and not red. The fact is that they kept pace with the Manchester sides until the new year, while Arsenal and Chelsea were never in the race. If they can bring the best out of their best they should have enough.

REASON TO WORRY: Experience in these tight races can be decisive. Arsenal and Chelsea have both qualified for the Champions League every year of the last nine, and Tottenham have only just done it once. It is a certain type of pressure, and this could count against Redknapp's men.

PREDICTION: They have quality, but lack mental edge for fourth.

ARSENAL

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THE FORMBOOK: Arsenal's recent transformation has been astonishing. In January, there was more discord between the fans and the club than there had ever been under Arsene Wenger. But, remarkably, they have won their last five league matches. Three of those were won with the last kick of the game, another was a 5-2 win in which they were 2-0 down, the other a 7-1 mauling. Add to that a thrilling but futile 3-0 second-leg defeat of Milan, and Arsenal are enjoying their best spell since last season.

THE MAN IN CHARGE: This has been a strange season for Wenger; he has never been more doubted than he was in January. But he has never failed to guide Arsenal into the top four. So for all the lingering long-term questions, over the lack of spending, the lack of depth, the lack of nerve and, of course, the lack of trophies, Wenger looks at the very least to have scrambled his way back on to safe ground.

REASON TO BE CONFIDENT: The world's best centre-forward plays for Arsenal. Since January 2011, Robin van Persie has been unplayable. In the last 15 months, he has scored 44 goals, many of them exceptional, in 45 league games. Of course, there are questions about his future, but they can wait until May. For these last 10 games, providing he is fit, he will be the best player in every one, and should provide the goals and leadership to complete his personal rescue job.

REASON TO WORRY: Even after the last month, it would take a brave man to bet on Arsenal's nerve under pressure. Arsenal still has a capacity for blowing it. Especially if van Persie gets injured.

PREDICTION: Form team should pip the other two.

CHELSEA

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THE FORMBOOK: In the immediate term, very good: Chelsea have won all four games since Roberto Di Matteo took caretaker charge. Whether this is mere new-manager bounce (two of the teams beaten are from the Championship), or something more cosmetic, remains to be seen. But with only 10 games left, as well as a cup run, the present is all that matters.

THE MAN IN CHARGE: Di Matteo cannot claim to match Wenger or Redknapp for experience, but has clearly lifted spirits at Stamford Bridge. Having been a Chelsea player just 10 years ago - often lining up alongside a young John Terry - he can better empathise with the squad than Andre Villas-Boas. He does have Premier League managerial experience, but his main task is motivational.

REASON TO BE CONFIDENT: That Jose Mourinho core - Petr Cech, Terry, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba - knows how to get it done when it matters. The five of them have won lots of medals over the years and will not be phased by this challenge. They are showing signs of summoning their old form.

REASON TO WORRY: Aside from being three points behind fourth place, and having possibly the hardest run-in, they have a less settled side than Arsenal or Tottenham, and have played less good football. If they cannot ride out this current wave of optimism then they may struggle to win the necessary games to reach fourth. Even one last hurrah from the 2004 side will still lack pace and finesse, unless the Fernando Torres revival is real.

PREDICTION: Too much ground to make up for Chelsea.

- Independent

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