Top four slots frozen in Premier League

LONDON: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have filled the top four slots in the Premier League so often that fans and commentators in England dismissively refer to the efforts of the chasing pack as "the race for fifth." And with Manchester City spending big in an effort to break into the four qualifying berths for the Champions League, it could be the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, Fulham and Tottenham fighting it out for the even less prestigious sixth spot this season.

The contest looks wide open after the clubs' transfer dealings make it tricky to say where they stand in relation to each other.

Manchester City's spending spree included long-serving Villa captain Gareth Barry and could yet grow with the acquisition of Everton defender Joleon Lescott, potentially weakening both their former clubs.

Tottenham finished last season strongly, but only after elimination from cup competitions allowed it to keep a settled lineup with just one match a week.

Everton look the most likely to challenge the top teams, despite the possible loss of Lescott.

The Toffees played large parts of last season with important players such as Mikel Arteta, Yakubu Ayegbeni, James Vaughan, Victor Anichebe and Louis Saha out injured, but still succeeded in finishing fifth and reaching the FA Cup final.

The return of that quintet will boost manager David Moyes' options, while the club will have Jo - the Brazilian striker who scored five goals in 12 Premier League games for Everton in the second half of the last campaign - on loan from Manchester City for the whole season.

"When you add Anichebe and Vaughan, we have five centre forwards who you would not like to play against and that gives the manager options," Everton captain Phil Neville said. "We are going to have to be patient with Yak. He's had a very serious injury and it will take time, but he's a proven goalscorer.

"Louis hasn't missed a session this season and Vaughany looks fitter and more mature too." Villa occupied fourth place for much of last season but faded to sixth as tiredness took its toll on a small squad and manager Martin O'Neill has yet to address the failing with less than four weeks left before the transfer window closes.

"If we are going to try and improve this season then we need some players in," O'Neill said. "I will be expecting that to happen. I am hopeful we will have players coming into the football club.

"We are some numbers down but we are looking to put that right." While Barry and Zat Knight have left and key defender Martin Laursen has retired, O'Neill has so far signed only England winger Stewart Downing, 19-year-old Leeds midfielder Fabian Delph and 16-year-old Northampton forward Courtney Cameron.

Fulham, meanwhile, would do extremely well to match last season's seventh place, which represented its highest ever position.

Much will depend on whether manager Roy Hodgson can hang onto defender Brede Hangeland, who is reputedly a target for Arsenal.

Tottenham look weak in defence with little backup to the injury prone Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate.

Manager Harry Redknapp may yet strengthen his squad further by offloading more players and spending the proceeds, but his only big move so far has been to sign Peter Crouch as a replacement for Darren Bent, now at Sunderland.

"He's an England international and he brings something to the squad very different to what we had before," Redknapp said. "He's a big lad, he holds the ball up well, he brings other players into the game and naturally with his size he's always a threat in the air.

"He will be a big, big player for us, a terrific signing."