Go fourth and multiply by millions

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It’s debatable if there is any greater example of modern football’s obsession with, and reliance on, money than the annual “fight for fourth place.”

Fourth used to be a nowhere position. At the end of every season you’d know who the champions were, you’d know who were runners-up if it had been a particularly close race, but fourth was usually a mystery, shrouded in that odd place between third and fifth and out of the collective consciousness. Then something changed.

The current format of the Champions League has its many critics, but if Uefa are determined to gather together the best teams from across Europe every year – regardless of where they are from – then four representatives from the Premier League seems about right, and the obsession to be a part of it grows and grows.

In 2004, when Gerard Houllier was clinging on to his job at Liverpool, his chief executive Rick Parry declared the Frenchman’s position was in jeopardy if the club failed to reach their “minimal acceptable target” of a top-four finish.

In the event they did, but Houllier was still sacked and the Reds won the Champions League the following season under Rafael Benitez, but the fact that fourth represented a “target” for Liverpool in 2003/04 spoke volumes. The Reds were serial third and fourth placed finishers under Roy Evans in the mid to late 1990s but, because those positions didn’t carry Champions League football at the time, that – often entertaining – team is largely forgotten about, and Evans is viewed by history as an underachieving manager.

This season, the “fight for fourth” appears to have attained a new importance, with nearly as many column inches devoted to it as to the title race.

Tottenham’s talents, Manchester City’s millions, Liverpool’s lethargy and Aston Villa’s ascendance have made it a race full of twists and turns, with the unpredictable and inconsistent nature of all four making it compelling at times. Everton’s energy might see them make a late burst for the position too.

The Blues’ hugely impressive 2-0 win at Eastlands last night, coupled with Villa’s disappointing home draw with Sunderland, underlines the pressure that the clubs vying for the top four are under.

Tottenham look favourites for the spot at the moment – a weekend fixture at home to Portsmouth should do nothing to dissuade that opinion – but they have to face the league’s top three in their remaining eight league fixtures and have mounting injuries. Liverpool, lurching from one crisis to another, appear to have forgotten how to put winning runs together, and are under the most pressure of all the challengers due to the importance they place on Champions League revenues.

A few years ago, investing such time and effort in simply finishing fourth in the table would have been thought absurd, but it’s the way the game has gone.

Money matters, fourth place in the table matters, and all of the clubs challenging for the position are desperate to get it. There’s no trophy on offer, but the rewards are huge.

In these financial times, it’s one of football’s more common themes.



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