x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The race to be fourth best

As the fight for England's final Champions League spot intensifies, an assessment of the teams in contention:

"I can guarantee we will finish in the top four." As the battle for fourth spot and the final Champions League place intensifies, these words will haunt Rafa Benitez for the rest of the season. When he made the brazen statement in December, it was a rallying cry to raise morale among dispirited Liverpool supporters, a backing for his under-performing players, and a defiant message to the doubters.

What it did, though, was put more pressure on himself and his team. As football has often shown, nothing is a certainty until the final whistle has blown. Wigan showed that on Monday with a 1-0 win that left Benitez betrayed. The surprise was not so much the goal from Hugo Rodallega, but the way Liverpool meekly surrendered at the DW Stadium. Benitez has rarely criticised his players in public, but the Spaniard seethed afterwards as he questioned their desire.

"We didn't show the right attitude and even though we worked harder in the second half, we played without game intelligence," he said. Benitez wants his side to show character to resurrect their fortunes - and that could be the key to determine who will compete in Europe's biggest club competition next season. At this tense stage, it is not always about the team that plays the most attractive football or has the best players. It is about the side that wants this prize the most and can cope under the weight of expectation with every game with performances scrutinised more than any other time.

Liverpool's experience of being in this situation - Benitez has guided them to a Champions League spot in four of his five seasons in charge - and the return of Fernando Torres makes them favourites. In squeezing out valuable victories, they had been doing exactly what was required, but now they need others to fail. Manchester City are a point ahead of Liverpool, level with Tottenham, but with a game in hand.

Roberto Mancini's side have had their own concerns, but the impressive 4-2 win at Chelsea has given them greater belief. In the courageous Carlos Tevez, they have a figure to lead their fight and decide their fate. Their Premier League run-in includes games against Manchester United and Arsenal, but what could be decisive are the visits of Aston Villa and Spurs to Eastlands. Four years ago, a 2-1 defeat at West Ham, coupled with Arsenal's win against Wigan, saw Spurs miss out on the final day. Curiously, Yossi Benayoun, now at Liverpool, was the Hammers hero that day.

Food poisoning had left the Spurs players ill on the eve of that game and they would be sickened if they were to be denied a Champions League place again. The biggest strength for Harry Redknapp's side is the striking quality. World Cup ambitions will no doubt ensure the England pair of Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch maintain their focus. Their cause will be helped if Aaron Lennon can return from injury for the successive games in April against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. That will be the moment of truth for Spurs.

Villa are four points behind them with two games in hand. They appear to have an easier run-in with five games against sides in the bottom half of the table, but, as Wigan showed, no result can be taken for granted. Martin O'Neill's squad has youthful exuberance, but that could count against them. Reservations remain about their ability to deliver when it matters. And, despite the Wigan loss, that is what still makes Liverpool too dangerous to ignore in the final reckoning.

Their striker Ryan Babel confirmed: "We definitely still have faith we can get fourth place." Benitez will hope so too. His reputation and future depends on it. @Email:akhan@thenational.ae