Just thirteen games remain in the English Premier League season and as it stands Tottenham Hotspur are level on points with Chelsea for 4th place (though Spurs trail massively in goal differential). Finishing in the top four was always the target for this season, no matter what Harry Redknapp has said. However, Spurs are not without rivals for this position and I have no doubt that it will be a nervy finish, much like it was last season. Spurs and Chelsea are obviously the main contenders, but Liverpool and Sunderland are not yet out of the picture.
With that in mind, let's take some time to look at each of the four teams in the race and see if their hopes for a UEFA Champions League place are realistic.
Chelsea began the season with title aspirations, and despite some poor form, seemed to have those dreams rekindled by some expensive transfer acquisitions. However, the game against Liverpool displayed that Carlo Ancelotti may not be quite sure how to utilize the wealth of talent he has available to him.
Chelsea has some difficult fixtures remaining, including two fixtures with Manchester United, away ties with Stoke City, Spurs, and Everton, and a home date with Manchester City. Add that to the fact that they are still competing in the Champions League and the FA Cup and this may be a very difficult run for Chelsea.
I don't doubt the quality that Chelsea have available to them. They have two of the best strikers in the world, their midfield is amazing, and their defense is stout. Add that to the fact that Petr Cech is one of, if not the best keeper in the world and this is certainly a formidable team. I do, however, doubt Ancelotti's ability to tactically utilize the squad. Trying to accommodate both Torres and Drogba in addition to Kalou and Anelka will prove a difficult task, one I'm not sure the Italian is up to.
Liverpool have displayed renewed vigor under Kenny Daglish and his tactics (playing three at the back) have seen Liverpool play some of their best football all season. But will new boys Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll be able to adequately replace Fernando Torres?
King Kenny seems to be an excellent motivator, much like Harry Redknapp, and his tactical freedom is a welcome change from Roy Hodgson. However, I can't help but wonder about their defense. Yes, Kenny is playing three at the back, but are any of those three really that amazing? Sure, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and Martin Skrtel are solid, but all are a bit prone to mental lapses.
Most of Liverpool's key matches down the stretch will be played at Anfield. Visits from Spurs and both Manchester clubs will be key, as will trips to the Emirates to play Arsenal and to Sunderland. Liverpool (and Sunderland) have played a game more than Chelsea and Spurs and thus will have to work that much harder to get into the top four.
Finally, the dark horse in the race, but the squad that may be most worrisome to me is Sunderland. Yes, they sold Darren Bent, but Asamoah Gyan is firing on all cylinders and the additions of Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon seem to be wise ones.
I'm not sure why this club worries me. Their defending is rather poor and Craig Gordon doesn't have the quality of Pepe Reina or Petr Cech. They have a very very difficult run in the next five games. Spurs (H), Everton (A), Arsenal (A), Liverpool (H), and Man City (A). If they can emerge from that run of games with nine points that would be miraculous.
Sunderland's main problem is the lack of depth in the squad as a whole and the fact that Gyan is their only fit striker. I'm not sure the Black Cats have what it takes to challenge for the top four, but I'm not ready to discount them just yet.
Finally, our beloved Spurs. We play three away league games in a row (with a mid-week trip to Milan sprinkled in). However, our next six league games are all winnable and earning maximum points from them is not out of the question. We still have trips to Man City, Chelsea, and Liverpool on the schedule after that as well as a home date with Arsenal that has yet to be re-scheduled.
With the current injury crisis at the Lane, the stretch run of the season could be difficult. Keeping Michael Dawson and William Gallas in the starting line-up week in and week out will be key, as will the returns of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, and Tom Huddlestone. The thing, though, that is most likely to keep Spurs out of the top four is our misfiring strikers. Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko are both streaky players, so hopefully one of them goes on a tear and starts banging them in.
The top four is certainly not out of sight and, honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see Arsenal or Man City falter down the stretch and allow either Spurs or Chelsea to slide into the top three. However, it won't be easy for any of the sides contending for the Champions League places and it could come down to the very last day.