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 Posted by Nick Ames
Aug 10, 2014

The contenders in the battle for fourth

Former England and Manchester United defender Phil Neville believes his old team are favourites for the title this season but admitted they still need to strengthen in the transfer window.

Battle for the title? Instinct would say that Manchester City and Chelsea will fight that one out with a few flourishes from those below. Perhaps this season's biggest intrigue, that apart, will be the race for fourth, which grows in importance by the year. It's a tightly packed field among the very best of the rest, some of which will see a top-four berth as the holy grail while others grit their teeth and look higher. Here, we try our best to sift through them.

Arsenal

Proud FA Cup winners at last. Alexis Sanchez freshly installed. Arsene Wenger's eyes twinkle once more. Shouldn't Arsenal be reaching for the stars? Of course, but that doesn't get them out of featuring here. There are too many question marks -- and have been too many false dawns in recent years -- to get them off this list of contenders just yet. Last season's drop-off was a case in point, although their early grip at the top of the table always seemed rather precarious.

The Gunners look thin defensively, with Thomas Vermaelen likely to leave, and have yet to solve the defensive-midfield conundrum that Wenger has not satisfactorily addressed for more than half a decade. The latter was a problem in matches against their rivals last season in particular: Chelsea and Liverpool picked them off far too easily in the spring.

With the right additions, Arsenal can push for the title and stop looking over their shoulders -- there should be little wrong going forward with Sanchez adding quality and variety while Mesut Ozil settles down to a first full season -- but at the moment there is a nagging feeling that they are slightly undercooked.

Outlook: Fourth won't be a problem this time. The Gunners should have enough to squeak into the top three, although the title seems beyond them.

Manchester United

From seventh to first within 12 months? Well, they've already done it the other way round. For all Louis van Gaal's self-assurance, though, United look more likely to be concerning themselves with making sure of a Champions League place this time.

Louis van Gaal and Luke Shaw will bring new ideas to a Manchester United team that are desperate to return to European football.

It seems implausible that Van Gaal does not intend to bring in new faces beyond Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, with the latter certainly adding continuity to what was a badly disjointed midfield last term, but the clock is ticking and it looks difficult to judge United until the summer's business is done. There appears plenty of dead wood to be culled too.

Van Gaal will not be cowed by mind-game attempts from Brendan Rodgers or anyone else. But he should not be treated as the messiah either. It is difficult not to see United improving considerably under the fastidious Dutchman, but it's just as tricky to imagine them reigning supreme in May unless he can coax miracles from a group of players whose time largely seemed to have been up.

Outlook: A renewed tilt at the Champions League -- they'll snatch that fourth place by the skin of their teeth, but things won't get any better than that just yet.

Liverpool

It seems slightly misanthropic to group Liverpool with the fourth-place hopefuls after the manner in which they swept (almost) all before them last season. The Premier League hadn't seen attacking football of such pace and improvisation since Arsenal's Invincibles, but their eventual inability to see the job through was redolent of a more modern brand of Gunner.

Brendan Rodgers has acknowledged that a slightly more circumspect approach may be needed this time, and it may take some months for the right balance to be struck -- particularly with no Luis Suarez to get them out of tight spots. Having an on-song Raheem Sterling for an entire season would sweeten the pill of losing the Uruguayan. While Daniel Sturridge rivals Sterling in being impossible to take one's eyes off of, but Rodgers may find it hard to find the right attacking blend.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he overspent on Adam Lallana, and Lazar Markovic --- while gifted -- will surely need time to settle in. Rickie Lambert will help, largely from the bench, to skin cats in different ways. But Rodgers' defensive dealings invite similar scrutiny, with the huge outlay on Dejan Lovren appearing a particular gamble. Liverpool won't fade away this season, but they may be in for slightly less of a white-knuckle ride while they bed into the chasing pack.

Outlook: They may end up fighting the mother of all fourth-place battles with United and Everton, and will probably find themselves pipped at the last by the former.

Everton

In previous years, a flicker of form at Goodison Park might have seen a promising Everton team dismantled. Not now. A year ago, few would have placed a lot money on Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Leighton Baines still working for Roberto Martinez unless their manager had secured a particularly attractive move. All remain, though, with Barkley's value having been safeguarded through a new contract and Lukaku signing a club-record deal that suggests the new Premier League television riches are making a difference to a club renowned for its prudence.

Despite his performances in Brazil for Bosnia, Muhamed Besic is still a fairly unknown quantity but certainly adds power and potential to an area where depth had been lacking. Keeping Gareth Barry was a shrewd piece of business too, while Seamus Coleman has joined Barkley in committing his future to the Toffees.

Things couldn't be looking much better. Now Everton need to consistently do it again while juggling a Europa League campaign. That won't be easy unless two or three more faces are added, particularly in attack, and you sense that there is not quite the depth to compete on all fronts. Keeping old faces is vital, but the squad needs to be bigger. After the way they set about their task last season, though, you wouldn't bet against their matching that fifth place.

Outlook: It looks like a tight northwestern battle for that fourth-place spot, with barely a whisker between the contenders. Everton still need to strengthen, though, to avoid being edged into sixth.

Tottenham Hotspur

If Spurs come good under Mauricio Pochettino this season, it will be the quietest of revolutions. Last season's thus-far, ill-fated transfer splurge does not look to be repeating itself, and there is perhaps the hope that the likes of Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado will come good under some strong, structured guidance. Pochettino is probably the man for that, but he could certainly use some more signings of his own. While Ben Davies will probably fill the problematic left-back berth, Michel Vorm and Eric Dier look like backups, and the rest of the squad looks bloated with underperformers. Emmanuel Adebayor's renaissance under Tim Sherwood was a notable component of last season's second half, but it would be unwise to set too much stock in the Togolese for a top-four sprint.

Christian Eriksen will be central to whatever improvements Mauricio Pochettino makes at White Hart Lane this season.

While the excellent Christian Eriksen will certainly get better in his first complete Premier League season, there is a general feeling of disappointment around the rest of the squad -- of talents that have not, for one reason or another, fulfilled themselves. If Pochettino can gel them in the manner of his fine Southampton side, that might not matter much -- but it seems reasonably clear that they are, for the first time in two or three years, not much better than outsiders for that top-four spot. Pochettino may need a couple of years to ensure that things, too often messed around with by those upstairs, are done his way.

Outlook: Not really a contender in anything but name. Spurs' best hope is a top-six place, and they may be hard pressed for even that.

Newcastle United

A joker in the pack here, particularly given the poison that enveloped St James' Park towards the end of last season. Alan Pardew pleaded for time to sort things out and, although his never quite feels like the steadiest of hands, the Magpies look a lot more compact this term.

Jack Colback is an honest -- and controversial -- addition to a midfield that gave up the ghost too often in 2013-14, while in Siem de Jong they seem to have upgraded from brother Luuk. Daryl Janmaat had a fine World Cup with the Netherlands and should be a good replacement for Mathieu Debuchy. Remy Cabella was superb for Montpellier in Ligue 1 last term and should provide the ingenuity that will be lost when Hatem Ben Arfa finally departs. Emmanuel Riviere looks a bit more of a gamble, and Pardew appears to be scouring the French market -- as ever -- for further attacking reinforcements, with a deal for Alexandre Lacazette mooted.

If that happens, Newcastle would feel fresher and more potent than in the past couple of years. Should any upstart bridge what was an eight-point gap between seventh and eighth last season, it will probably be them.

Outlook: Fourth is not especially realistic, but Pardew will have his sights on a push for Europe and Spurs, particularly, look vulnerable.

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