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Trending: Huddersfield reach Premier League


Breaking the top four

If spending power alone could break the Premier League top four then moneybags Manchester City, who have spent almost £100m on recruitment this summer, would be already in there; but unfortunately for Mark Hughes' much changed team they still have to play a bit of football first.

Last term the Citizens were hopeless away from home and not much better at the City of Manchester Stadium and missed out on a place in the Europa League as a consequence. Such was their poor form that Hughes' future at the club was the subject of much speculation.

However, chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak stuck with the manager and has certainly backed him in the transfer market this summer.

City's spending has provided Hughes with two strong options in every position and the manager's toughest task will be striking the correct balance in his starting eleven whilst keeping all his handsomely paid stars happy during the course of the season.

Carlos Tevez has said his new employers have the best attack in Europe and although that might be stretching the truth, an attacking two-some of himself and fellow £25m new recruit Emmanuel Adebayor, supported from midfield by Robinho, Shaun Wright-Phillips and player of the season Steven Ireland is none too shabby.

On the face of it, player for player, City look realistic candidates to crack the 'big four', but top individuals don't necessarily make a top team and there are still some weaknesses in the squad. As yet, Hughes has been unable to recruit either John Terry or Joleon Lescott to partner £16m Kolo Toure in central defence and City's soft centre was so often their downfall last term.

If the season starts well then City could really make their mark at the top of the league, but if it proves to be a struggle early on then expect cracks to appear in what rival fans already lambast as a collection of mercenaries.

Last season, Aston Villa carried hopes of upsetting the establishment and, in February 2009, the Midlands club sat third in the Premier League, seven points clear of fifth placed Arsenal, only to suffer a catastrophic loss of form in the following months. The club eventually finished the season in sixth place, 10 points behind fourth placed Arsenal and clinging on for a Europa League place.

Villa's collapse was largely due to a ludicrously early start to the season in the InterToto Cup on July 19 (in order to qualify for the UEFA Cup) and a somewhat threadbare squad that simply ran out of steam. For the 2009-10 season Villa boss Martin O'Neill has avoided the need to enter the InterToto, but his squad is even weaker than last term.

Experienced former captain Gareth Barry has left to join Man City and has been replaced by an untested, but highly-rated, teenager from League One side Leeds United in Fabian Delph. Meanwhile, at the back, Zat Knight has joined Bolton Wanderers and defensive rock Martin Larsen has been forced to retire with dodgy knees, leaving Carlos Cuellar and Curtis Davies as the only recognised centre-backs at the club.

The Villans have recruited £12m England international Stewart Downing from Middlesbrough but he generally operates on the left flank, where Villa already have another, if not better, England international in Ashley Young.

Unless some quality new faces arrive at the club very soon it doesn't look great for Villa this term and, after blowing their big chance last season, they could well be overjoyed at another sixth placed finish this term.

Conversely to Villa's great start to the 2008-09 season, Everton had a dire opening few months, picking up only seven points by the start of October, but came strong during the business end of the season to finish in fifth place and an FA Cup final date with Chelsea at Wembley. What's more, they did it without crocked playmaker Mikel Arteta and without a striker for much of the season. Midfield duo Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini filled in for their injured colleagues and ended the season as the club's joint top scorers with eight Premier League goals apiece.

Spanish midfielder Arteta, who suffered a cruciate ligament injury last term, is back in training and £11m striker Yakubu, who also missed out last season with a long-term Achilles problem, is set to return for the start of the season. Former Manchester United forward Louis Saha is back to fitness and manager David Moyes has re-signed £18m Brazilian striker Jo on-loan from Manchester City to further bolster his attack.

At the time of writing Moyes is stubbornly fighting off an approach from Man City for England defender Joleon Lescott and, with fellow defender Phil Jagielka out injured, it is crucial that Everton keep hold of the 26-year-old.

But with a defence, midfield and attack that can be described as solid, Everton are well placed to mount another assault on the top four. They were the last team to successfully do it, in 2005, and if they can avoid key injuries this season they are best placed to do so again.

Tottenham Hotspur will be hoping to rain on Moyes' parade of course and were only a poisoned lasagne away from cracking the big four under Martin Jol in 2006. But times have changed at Spurs, who have turned to Harry "we only had two points from eight games when I arrived" Redknapp to transform their flirtation with relegation into an assault on the top four.

In the January transfer window, the ex-Portsmouth manager spent over £30m to get Tottenham heading in the right direction; bringing strike duo Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe back to White Hart Lane, along with defender Pascal Chimbonda, and maybe most crucially strengthening a lightweight midfield with the capture Wilson Palacios from Wigan Athletic.

Redknapp turned Tottenham's previously porous defence into the seventh best in the league and their attack into the eight best. If the London club had picked up just three more points from the eight games prior to Redknapp's arrival they would have qualified for Europe. However, the fact that they never did, and as a consequence have less games to play, could be a big plus when it comes to the Premier League campaign.

The fewer games to play in a season the better for key centre-back Ledley King, whose knees are so dodgy he trains in a swimming pool between games and can't play two matches in a week. Still, the 28-year-old is key to a defence that will be ravaged by injury for the start of the season. Jonathan Woodgate is the first choice centre back partner but at the moment his return date is unknown.

In midfield Croatian playmaker Luca Modric pulls the strings and after taking time to find his feet last term he will be hoping to hit the ground running this season. Former Pompey striker Peter Crouch, re-united with Redknapp for £9m, has replaced ousted Darren Bent and Spurs now have two big men and two little men to pair in various combinations.

Redknapp will undoubtedly move Spurs up the table this term, especially with no European campaign to distract them, but they still lack the consistent solidity of Everton, or the star quality of Manchester City, and will probably finish behind both this season.


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