Race for Champions League place tougher than ever

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If you had told me six months ago that Newcastle United would be fifth in the table in the middle of January, above Liverpool and Arsenal, and one point behind fourth-placed Chelsea, I would have told you that you were mad, and had absolutely no idea what you were talking about.

But so rapid has the progression of Alan Pardew's side been, twinned with the inconsistency of a number of former Premier League powerhouses, that we are now in February and the Magpies are in with a genuine chance of Champions League qualification.

Let's rewind 12 months - Newcastle's owners were being berated by loyal supporters following the £35million sale of Andy Carroll to Liverpool, with allegations over the club's lack of ambition the main protagonist behind the increasing unrest upon Tyneside.

Last summer that angst was added to when the likes of Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton followed Carroll out of St James' Park, while the free transfer signing of Demba Ba, and the acquisition of French trio Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan left everyone collectively underwhelmed. How wrong we were.

Newcastle's scouting network is good, particularly with their thorough assessment of Ligue 1 - a league identified by Pardew as an area with plenty of untapped talent, capable of making an impact in England's top-flight. Cabaye in particular has been one of the signings of the season, and has been a key cog in the Magpies' engine room that has consistently challenged in the higher echelons of the Premier League this year.

Newcastle, a bit like Tottenham a few years ago, and Liverpool, are trying to close the gap on the best of the best, while Arsenal and Chelsea are frantically trying to stay in the elite four. What makes their efforts this season even more impressive is the vast difference in their respective wage and transfer budgets.

If Newcastle sell one player, like they did with Carroll, the aim must be to reinvest the money in three or four new ones to improve the overall quality of the squad. Then eventually, like Spurs did with Luka Modric, they will be in a position to resist bids from bigger clubs.

It isn't so long ago that Tottenham were selling Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United, but their stance over Chelsea's attempts to lure Modric to Stamford Bridge last summer is a sign of progress - providing they can return to the Champions League next season.

Meanwhile, Chelsea are in a period of transition, with the summer arrival of Andre Villas-Boas coinciding with a change in approach from the powers that be in west London. The Portuguese tactician has been tasked with evolving an ageing squad, in favour of bringing in new and exciting young talent to serve the club for many years to come.

Having successfully negotiated their way to the last-16 of the Champions League, Chelsea's league form has been anything but consistent - yesterday's 3-3 draw with Manchester United a perfect example of their defensive frailties and newfound ability to self-combust.

In fairness, the Blues have shown glimpses of what they are capable of, and will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, but their unpredictable form leaves them susceptible to the chasing pack.

Liverpool have spent over £100million strengthening their squad over the past 12 months but their current league standing hardly reflects that level of investment, as Kenny Dalglish's men have struggled for results, particularly at Anfield this season. Having said that, the Reds do have a Wembley final to look forward with yet another piece of silverware in the form of the Carling Cup on the horizon.

An upturn in form in 2012 has given Liverpool fans a renewed sense of optimism, with a growing belief upon Merseyside that their club are still in the hunt for a return to Europe's top-tier competition next year.

Arsenal's hopes of a top-four finish are also hanging in the balance, with the responsibility falling primarily on the shoulders of club captain Robin van Persie to fire the young Gunners into the Champions League.

Arsene Wenger has successfully guided the club into Europe in each of his 15 seasons in north London, but his reluctance to strengthen in the recent transfer window and blind faith in the talent at his disposal has raised a few eyebrows.

A 7-1 crushing of relegation threatened Blackburn Rovers at the Emirates Stadium this weekend has provided a platform for some New Year cheer amongst Arsenal fans following three consecutive Premier League defeats, but a level of uncertainty still remains.

The common denominator here is that an increase in under-par performances from England's elite is the main reason why the chase for a Champions League place this year is tighter than ever.

Manchester City and local rivals Manchester United are locked in a two-way fight for the domestic crown, while Tottenham - who have played the most attractive brand of football in the Premier League this season - are, through no lack of effort of their own, a little off the title pace.

Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool continue to battle their respective demons, whether it's a lack of firepower up front, calamitous defending at the back, or even a mixture of both, that has contributed to the predictably unpredictable nature of the 2011-12 campaign.

Newcastle have certainly been the surprise package of the season, whereby for the first time in years, Pardew has successfully steered the club into a position where they can realistically break the monopoly that has dominated the Premier League for so long.

It isn't a top six anymore, Newcastle have made it a top seven.

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