And then there were five.
When the Premier League season started, there was an obvious six-way race for Champions League places. These teams -- dubbed the 'Sky Six' -- were divided into three tiers by many. In the top tier was Manchester United and Manchester City. While it was not a lock that one of these two teams would win the title, it seemed inconceivable that either could drop out of the top four. The second tier was made up of Arsenal and Chelsea, two teams with a lot of question marks. Both had the talent to make a title run and the issues to crash out of Champions League. The Sky Six's third tier, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, was made up of the two teams that missed out last season. They, supposedly, had some work to do.
The season began with some odd results in the first month and a half. Manchester United crushed Tottenham and Arsenal, but was torn to shreds by City. After getting killed by the Manchester sides, Tottenham ripped off an inexplicably good run of form. Chelsea often looked spectacular, but suffered a number of very poor results due to a combination of poor individual performances, tactical naivety, and just plain bad luck. Arsenal rebounded from their early slumps thanks to the heroics of Robin van Persie. United rattled off a bunch of really, really boring and crappy 1-0 wins, then got bounced out of Champions League.
Through all of these results, it became apparent that the separation between the second and fifth best teams in the Premier League was virtually nothing. There was a gap, however, on either end of this grouping. It wasn't a gap that was impossible to bridge, but it existed nonetheless. On top, Manchester City were clearly the best team based on their domestic form. Roberto Mancini made some poor tactical decisions that caused their early exit from Champions League, whereas Manchester United were bounced out of that same competition because they were simply not good enough. City's loss to Napoli and later loss to Chelsea in the league proved that the gap could be bridged, but was (and still is) a gap that existed nonetheless.
On the other end, there was Liverpool. A lone wolf of sorts. Demonstrably better than every team below them and demonstrably worse than every team above them. Talk about the Chelsea result all you want, but all wins are not the same. They all count for three points, but the way they happen is just as important as the points. The way results are achieved are a possible indicator of future results.
During their tenures in the Premier League, Hull City and Blackpool FC put together fantastic runs of form. At one point, both were in the top four. Wolves were in first place earlier this season. Their results were not repeatable, and it was easy for everyone to see because of the club names and crests on their shirts. However, when it comes to Liverpool, our judgment can be easily clouded. They've won the English top flight 18 times and they have five European Cups. Their manager has won everything there is to win as both a player and a manager, and he is managing a team that cost a lot of money to assemble.
Because of all of those factors, when they do something like defeat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, we struggle to examine the match objectively. The fact is, Chelsea were better for more than 45 minutes of that match. Andre Villas-Boas made a great tactical switch at halftime. Chelsea created a lot of chances that weren't converted. The first goal was a gift from John Obi Mikel, while the second was similarly gift-wrapped. They were goals set up for Liverpool through giveaways and bad defending, gifted to them by a team that had not yet worked out their problems with giveaways and bad defending. Sure, they had to be good enough to take advantage of their opportunities, but that doesn't indicate that they're title contenders. A team good enough to finish sixth in the Premier League should finish those chances.
They met again in the Carling Cup after this match, on November 29. Liverpool won again, but certainly didn't feel victorious after the match. This was the one where Lucas Leiva blew out his knee. The Brazilian international, much maligned at the beginning of his Liverpool career, grew to be the rock in the center of the park for the Reds. For a year and a half, he was their best player. Along with Steven Gerrard -- who hasn't actually been STEVEN GERRARD since 2008 -- he joined the long-term injury list. The team that was in sixth place but with much higher aspirations was suddenly without their best player.
It felt like a terrible blow, but not quite a death blow. After all, Arsenal were just a van Persie injury from suffering the same fate, and god knows we've seen our fair share of those. Based on the games Luka Modric hasn't started for Spurs, they might be a Modric injury away from something similar. It couldn't be a death blow, not with those possibilities still lingering. Solidified as the sixth best team in the league based on current fitness levels, absolutely, but not dead.
That was, until Tuesday.
On Tuesday, December 19, Liverpool FC were killed off for good. The Sky Six is, temporarily, the Sky Five. Liverpool will re-join the elite clique, even more exclusive, obnoxious and self-important than the douchebags who wouldn't hang out with you in high school, but they will not re-join said clique until August. On Tuesday, the Luis Suarez ban was handed down. He was suspended eight games for racially abusing Patrice Evra. Whether or not you think the charges or the ban were fair is not relevant. It happened, and Suarez will miss games for Liverpool this season.
He has a chance to appeal and he will almost certainly do so. Liverpool and Suarez both seem to think that he did little, if anything wrong to Evra. Even if they're right, Suarez will still be suspended for an extended period of time. Eight-game suspensions do not get reversed, or even turn into two-game suspensions. He probably has a good chance of getting the ban reduced, but he'll end up missing at least a month's worth of fixtures. With Lucas out and both Gerrard and Jamie Carragher shells of their former selves, it is the nail in the coffin. Liverpool will not finish in the top four this season. They will not compete in the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League.
This, unquestionably, has a positive effect on Tottenham Hotspur. There is a section of fans that wanted to beat Liverpool because Spurs were the better team, not because they suffered injuries and suspensions, but that is beside the point. Liverpool are now, due to circumstances beyond the control of the fans and ownership, a worse team than Tottenham Hotspur. Once a direct rival, they are now on their way to being left in the dust.
Liverpool currently sit on 29 points, tied with Chelsea. They will probably defeat Wigan Athletic and go to 32 points. Hell, they might not drop points until they play City on January 3, but don't be fooled. Without Lucas, they are already the sixth best team in the Premier League. Suarez will have to serve a lengthy ban at some point, and Liverpool will be without both him and Lucas, their two best players. Even City wouldn't be a lock to withstand the losses of two of David Silva, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany.
The Reds are dead. Dead as a doornail. And now, Tottenham just need to beat one of the Sky Six instead of two of the Sky Six. One of the teams has been killed off for them.
One down. One to go.