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Nov 5, 2007

Hughes can spark Rovers to fifth

The description 'best of the rest' has always carried the implication of being damned by faint praise.

Yet in the Premier League, it has represented an achievement nonetheless. In the last two seasons, that unofficial title has belonged to Tottenham and there was a widespread assumption, that no one would usurp their status; indeed some, not least at White Hart Lane, thought they were gravitating towards a top five to dominate the Premier League.

Their regression means that, unless Juande Ramos can effect a rapid reversal in their fortunes, an unofficial crown is up for grabs and, unlike many a title race, the quest for it has all the hallmarks of an open contest.

The early, if unexpected, frontrunners are Manchester City, intruders in the Champions League places for much of the campaign and, along with Spurs and Sunderland, the biggest spenders outside the big four.

If expenditure won't catapult Roy Keane's recruits or Ramos' new charges into fifth place, it might City, especially as Sven-Goran Eriksson has acquired, in Elano, arguably the outstanding player not owned by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool. Impeccable home form and the incision offered by Martin Petrov on the left flank also aid City's cause.

However, though Thaksin Shinawatra will surely fund the search for a goalkeeper and a goalscorer, it is yet to be ascertained whether a team hastily, though skilfully, thrown together can sustain their consistency over a whole campaign, especially as a reliance on key players such as Elano, Petrov, Micah Richards and Richard Dunne is yet to be truly tested by injuries.

Consistency was once the forte of Bolton, proud possessors of four successive top-eight finishes. With a fifth practically an impossibility, that mantle may fall to Everton, only outside the top half for one week since the start of last season. The timely returns of Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta to inject quality into a workmanlike midfield certainly bode well, along with Ayegbeni Yakubu's recent scoring spurt, and David Moyes now has the strongest squad of his five-year tenure.

However, with Andrew Johnson enduring an awkward campaign, the composition of the forward line when everyone is fit is one issue for Moyes to resolve. In addition, Everton have belatedly reached a first cup quarter-final of his reign and other commitments could impact upon their league form.

The FA Cup apart, Aston Villa have nothing else to focus on. Progress is evident in their performances this season, not least in the threat posed by the blistering pace of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor that means Villa present a unique challenge to opponents.

As Chelsea can testify, they possess the potential to beat the best, yet their difficulties in winning away from home could be a hindrance. That Martin O'Neill has the smallest squad in the Premier League is another possible problem and, while Europe may beckon, fifth place might not.

Newcastle United have comparatively recent experience of it, their eventual placing in Bobby Robson's final full season at St James' Park. A return there would complete a remarkable first year in the North East for Sam Allardyce. For it to be procured, there are several issues for Allardyce to resolve, not least an inability to keep clean sheets away from home that clearly preoccupied the manager himself, even before the Newcastle back four's convincing impression of strangers in the home defeat to Portsmouth.

Reconciling his habitual preference for solidity with the Newcastle public's perennial quest for entertainment is another quandary, along with Michael Owen, whose status means he can overshadow more influential performers. Recent selections suggest there is a difficulty accommodating wingers as well as the more reliable midfielders Allardyce treasures, even if it is caused in part by the accumulation of probably the strongest group of players among the contenders for fifth place.

West Ham's, meanwhile, would look considerably better if they were all available at the same time, something that appears unlikely in the extreme. Their current striking shortage is particularly pressing yet, with Dean Ashton and Craig Bellamy in harness, fifth would be by no means an impossibility, especially when Scott Parker and Julien Faubert return.

Yet, as a current position of 11th owes much to Robert Green, it indicates a general need for improvement, a comment that may apply to Alan Curbishley, who often appears overwhelmed by the pressures of managing a club who command a place in the media spotlight.

Harry Redknapp, in contrast, relishes it. He has turned getting favourable headlines into an art form, though his Portsmouth team merit many of their own. Allying physical strength and pace all over the pitch with added quality in the final third - with the flowering of Niko Kranjcar's talent being particularly significant - they have proved a source of entertainment thus far.

Whether Benjani, among the most unlikely forwards to be the Premier League's top scorer, can maintain his remarkable form is doubtful and the African Cup of Nations threatens to remove a sizeable chunk of Redknapp's ensemble. However, Benjani's current excellence weakens the case of their manager, ever the market trader, if he demands the striker that might propel Portsmouth into the top five.

Redknapp's summer spending exceeds £20 million. So, too, do those of Curbishley, Allardyce, Moyes, O'Neill and Eriksson.

If even the UEFA Cup places were the preserve of the very rich, however, then the comparative paupers of Blackburn Rovers should attract the support of those who instinctively favour the underdog.

Mark Hughes' outlay ran to less than £4 million but, with Roque Santa Cruz outstanding so far, it certainly represents money well spent. His alliance with Benni McCarthy may be, on current form, the best strike partnership outside the established quartet of clubs at the top.

Likewise Morten Gamst Pedersen, though finding first-team football hard to come by, and David Bentley are the premier duo of wingers while Ryan Nelsen and Christopher Samba rival Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin for the tag of the finest centre-back partnership constructed for under £1 million.

While a draw with Liverpool ended a sequence of seven straight wins, it demonstrates Blackburn can piece together the sort of run to be in contention. Even a UEFA Cup exit to Larissa, while showing Hughes' charges are far from infallible, could become a blessing if it enables them to concentrate on their domestic fixtures.

And while it is often easy to confuse 'best of the rest' with 'richest of the rest', it would provide a reminder to multi-millionaire chairmen what money can't buy if Hughes were to steer his assortment of astute acquisitions into fifth place.

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