A week in which debate began about whether there should be play-offs for England's fourth Champions' League place ends today with what could effectively prove to be one. Manchester City, in fourth position with a game in hand, take on Liverpool, who are one point and one place behind them. Furthermore, whatever Aston Villa and Tottenham may claim – both could this afternoon move above the losers at Eastlands – City and Liverpool are the two most likely contenders for the fourth slot.
Neither Roberto Mancini nor Rafael Benitez is in favour of the play-off proposal, on the grounds that the back end of the season is already quite congested enough, with or without an early finish to facilitate a World Cup or European Championship.
Naturally, each is reluctant to accept that final positions in the table will depend on what happens in February, but Liverpool know that a ninth defeat of the campaign would be a serious setback. As Dirk Kuyt puts it: "If we can win this game we will be back in it, and if we lose it we have a big problem."
The industrious Dutchman scored in both meetings last season, his winning goal in the last minute at Eastlands illustrating how far City still were from catching Liverpool, let alone achieving the rest of their dreams. They had led 2-0 at half-time but collapsed thereafter; by Christmas they were in the bottom three, with Kuyt's team top of the table.
Now the table has been turned. A 2-2 draw between the sides at Anfield in November was a fair result, and if City can improve on that today they will stride with confident purpose into Wednesday's FA Cup replay at Stoke and Saturday's significant trip to Chelsea. Liverpool, meanwhile, have been eating humble Europa League pie and must do so again on Thursday with a long trip to Romania, having only narrowly avoided an embarrassing draw in the home leg against Unirea Urziceni.
"We would have preferred to be in a better position than this," Kuyt says, "but it is what it is and we have to try and win this game and try to finish in the top four. We think we have the quality to do that."
What the Anfield camp are trying to make capital of, like Manchester United in their struggle with Chelsea, is their weight of experience in similar situations. The nouveaux riches of Chelsea and City, the argument runs, have not felt the same pressure as often as the old aristocrats of Old Trafford and Anfield.
Kuyt adds: "We have the experience to come from this position and the most important thing is that apart from the Arsenal game [0-1] we are on a good run without conceding many goals. We are winning games and that is giving us confidence that we can do it, and on Sunday we will be ready."
Benitez echoed him. "It's always important, experience, and not just for one game. Also for the rest of the season, so I have to believe that the experience will be the key, because we have more than them. They have been improving in the last two years and everybody's expecting that they have to be there. So we know that they want to be there and it will be interesting for both to see what happens."
The Liverpool manager will be pleased at the unavailability for City of both Carlos Tevez and Patrick Vieira; the former possessing the ability to unhinge his defence, the latter physically to disrupt his midfield. What he hopes is that as City pour forward, the visitors will be able to counter- attack in a "totally different" game to Thursday's. But the same result would suit him perfectly.
Aston Villa v Burnley (Sky Sports 1, 2.0)
Two cases of claret, but in Villa's case it is the start of a critical week, continuing with an FA Cup replay against Crystal Palace and then the Carling Cup final next Sunday. That's exactly a year after it all fell apart for Martin O'Neill in the FA Cup, Uefa Cup and the League.
Blackburn Rovers v Bolton Wanderers (ESPN, 12.0)
In the fixture that the home team hardly ever win (10 draws and eight away wins in the past 19 meetings), Blackburn hope to defy the statistics by consolidating in mid-table while leaving their unloved rivals marooned in the bottom three.
Fulham v Birmingham City (3.0)
Fulham's small squad is holding up remarkably well amid the club's longest-ever European run. On the weekend after the past three Europa League games they have beaten Manchester United, Sunderland and Liverpool. Birmingham, fresh and flying high, will still be a test.
Manchester City v Liverpool (3.0)
Welcome to the fourth-place play-off; the game most people would like to see on TV today but cannot. Liverpool fans must get used to such indignities if there are to be regular Thursday gigs in the Europa League. Defeat here and there will be even more of them next season.
Wigan Athletic v Tottenham Hotspur (Sky Sports 1, 4.15)
The return fixture from the 9-1 game earlier in the season, and any Spurs fans will probably think they are also entitled to a travel refund when they see the state of the rugby league pitch. It's a day to make up ground on either City or Liverpool.
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