Finally, after five years of unbroken dominance, the ‘big four’ cabal that has ruled over the Premier League, leaving the hallowed grounds of Champions League football a closed shop to the ambitious clubs just below, has been broken. As Liverpool’s season went from bad to worse, a resurgent Tottenham pipped a progressing Aston Villa and the financial juggernaut of Manchester City to fourth in the league, and now the riches of a seat at Europe’s top table will head their way. Has a football revolution begun?

This is surely the best season in Spurs’ recent history, the most promising since their 1991 FA Cup win or the third-placed finish the season before that (which back then, of course, meant only UEFA Cup football). Even with a couple of League Cups in the meantime, knowing that a two-legged qualifier is all that stands between them and the £20M due for reaching the group stage is a thought not many would have envisaged during their struggles early last season. But Harry Redknapp came in, spent his large war-chest wisely (see Wilson Palacios, Niko Kranjcar, Peter Crouch), and with big performances from the likes of Gareth Bale, Ledley King and Michael Dawson secured crucial wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City in the home stretch of the season. Indeed, Spurs have surged where Villa have lagged and Man City have flagged.

Spurs will celebrate throughout the summer, and should be in the transfer market for some very big names to prepare them for the big step up. They might even fancy their chances of a decent run in the competition, with Liverpool and Juventus two household names missing out next year – it’s funny how England and Italy’s two biggest clubs both have disasters at the same time – and a lucrative quarter-final, whilst optimistic, is not entirely unrealistic.

The real fight, though will be hanging onto fourth spot and guaranteeing Champions League football for years to come. Mindful of not ‘doing a Leeds’ and overextending to stay there, yet concerned about Man City’s inevitable multi-million spending spree to come, as well as Liverpool and Arsenal, the most vulnerable of the recent oligarchs, rebuilding and renewing respectively, it is far from a certainty that Tottenham can repeat their enormous success this season. It is a huge achievement to have got there now, and they will fancy themselves to do it again – a good young squad, an experienced manager and a new stadium move to come – but it will be an even bigger achievement if they stay at Europe’s top table next year.

Arguably the biggest consequence of Spurs’ 1-0 win at Eastlands was that Man City will now be unable to get that true global superstar they were so desperate to sign. It is highly unlikely that Fernando Torres, for example, would leave Liverpool’s Europa League campaign and a tilt at the top-four for a similar one in Manchester, even if City will be a bigger threat to win the title, and other ‘marquee’ players will feel the same way. So far only troubled potential superstars (Carlos Tevez, Robinho, Emmanuel Adebayor), a few young tyros and experienced pros looking for a (last) crack at the big time (Craig Bellamy, Gareth Barry, Shay Given) have been persuaded to head to Eastlands, so the desperately desired prized scalp may have to wait until the blue half of Manchester walks the walk.

Whether or not Roberto Mancini stays as Man City manager – despite his moderate success and criticism of his defensive line-ups, not too many big names are available – City hardly needed the money from the Champions League as much as Spurs, and expect to see a new left back, right back, possibly a centre back, a midfielder and a striker, with one of them likely to be a big statement signing to signal their intentions to make up for this latest setback in their history of self-destruction. It does seem inevitable that City will be up there, and it promises to shake the upper reaches of English and European football, but it is typical Manchester City behaviour to make such a hash of unlimited spending power, and time is running out before Michel Platini’s attempts to prevent ‘financial doping’ curtail the clout of the sugar daddies.

Other than Man City, the closest challengers for fourth, and the biggest losers from this season, have been Aston Villa. In a season that saw one cup final, a semi-final and a stronger league campaign than last year’s near miss on fourth, the resentment about being unluckily defeated and missing out on at least one piece of silverware, and then falling agonisingly short once again may linger throughout the summer.

The 2008/09 season, when Man City were raw, Spurs were avoiding relegation and Arsenal were the ‘big four’ strugglers, does with hindsight look as though it was Villa’s best chance to break the glass ceiling, and now with Spurs and City having overtaken Villa just as they had climbed ahead of Liverpool and Everton, a third successive sixth-placed finish is scant consolation for all the promising success and progression this season. What Aston Villa missed desperately was a bit of creative magic, a clever playmaker behind Gabriel Agbonlahor and/or John Carew as an alternative to wide play, but being in the second tier of Europe next season, in financial terms as well as footballing terms, could be in a less glorified battle with fellow patient builders Everton for Europe, as well as hoping to sneak ahead of the other big guns for cup glories.

What of Liverpool for next season? After this most traumatic of campaigns, can they overhaul the riches of Man City and the spirit of Spurs? It all depends on a possible takeover, it seems, as without it they will have an extremely modest budget with which to attract players, who would have to be drawn to the history and prestige rather than the present and future prospects of England’s most successful club. With Rafael Benitez, the beleaguered manager, possibly departing to Juventus (and with a mixed reaction should it happen due to the way his side have stumbled this season), Torres a possible departure and question marks over the futures of the few high-quality players such as Javier Mascherano, Yossi Benayoun and even Steven Gerrard, the challenge to revive an already thin squad with little money may prove beyond anyone. Some have suggested that Roy Hodgson may leave his Fulham fantasy to turn Liverpool into Lazarus, but the size of the mess at Anfield is enough to make a saint swear.

Whatever happens, there is a feeling that this season may have been a momentous one in the history of English football, perhaps bringing a greater openness to the title race and the top of the Premier League, with the Champions League a realistic target for six, seven or eight clubs, and maybe even a bright new dawn for Spurs in Europe’s toughest competition. The one undeniable fact is that the ‘big four’ is now no more, and few will mourn its loss.


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