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Robbo Robson | 13:46 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

Every year the Champions League comes round, I tell meself I'm not going to bother this time.

The same sponsors' logos; that blinking choir blaring out the Champions League theme like we're all about to witness the recovery of the Holy flippin' Grail...

Steve Rider's unmoving hair and polished anonymity; the Andy Townsend pencam waffle; the well-prepared but meaningless guest pundit (Paulo Sousa, anyone?)... Gawd it drives me mad. And yet...

Well, you do get to witness the best footballers on the planet doing their thing. Plus, the debt-laden elite of European football hang on to the tournament like Jack with his golden egg - and every so often the giant catches up with the little thief and nabs it back off him.
Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres  Will Gerrard and Torres be playing in the Champions League with Liverpool next season?
That's the true excitement of this year's Premier League. Can Liverpool, knees already bowing under the weight of Abbott and Costello's IOUs, keep their almost biblicially pre-ordained place in the Big Time - or does mid-table obscurity beckon?

The word is that Messrs Torres and Gerrard might be appearing in a shop window near you very soon, and shorn of their only cutting edge (save for the odd stud on Javier Mascherano's boot) and no Champs League income, what chance the glory days returning for quite some time?

And based on Sunday's match at Eastlands, you can't say that Rafa Benitez or his team will be missed. There's more adventure to be had in a flotation tank.

Fortunately, I was helping a mate undercoat a wall while the game blared out from the telly behind us. To say City-Pool was like watching paint dry is an insult to Dulux (other painting products are available).

Liverpool should still do it. Whereas their run-in looks like a gentle glide down the nursery slopes, Citeh's looks too scary for even Amy Williams to contemplate.

And while Rafa's tendency to shut up shop and grind it out is predictable, Roberto Mancini's grim and gutless team defies belief.

You could build a Taj Mahal with all that cash and all we get is a serious of overpriced portakabins. Manchester City are audaciously-endowed, but terribly demure. It's like watching Angelina Jolie playing a nun. Tevez's return may help. But I don't see them getting enough from Chelsea, Spurs, Man United, Arsenal and Aston Villa to see them into the Champions League.

Spurs might do it, but three of their last four fixtures are against Arsenal, Chelsea and United.

Harry Redknapp was quick to praise Roman Pavluychenko after Sunday's game - and quite right, too. I've said before that I think Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe, lads who have followed Harry from place to place like a pair of doe-eyed faithful retrievers, miss far too often for my liking, and the Russian lad has proved to be a little more lethal in his brief appearances.

Anyway, Luka Modric deserves a better end-product to his work. Sometimes the little bag of bones is like a brilliant artisan who spends a day crafting a priceless porcelain vase, only for the dolts up front to drop the damn thing on its way to the plinth.

Tottenham still appear to me to be too chock-full of lazy (or at least rather retiring) Englishmen to pull it off. Whereas Villa - a team almost as busy as the manager is on the touchline - seem full of industrious Englishmen with less innate talent.

The work ethic is alive and well under Villa. Every post-match interview tells you that Martin O'Neill takes his job dead seriously. Sometimes I wish he'd lighten up a bit. They win 5-2 and from the tone in his voice you'd think he'd been attending the funeral of a family pet.

But Gabby Agbonlahor is industry itself - and not since Andy Johnson was in his Palace pomp has there been a better bundler of goals. The Emile Heskey debate continues: does his worth to the team outweigh his inability to hit a 10-ton-truck with a ping-pong ball? (Although, granted, he did manage to pop one in the onion bag against Burnley.)
Stewart DowningDowning is in good form
Ashley Young and Stewart Downing are thriving - and I tell you now, young Stewie will be on the plane to South Africa 'cos he can kick a ball with his left foot (and finish with his right) - and bar Wayne Rooney, James Milner is the best English outfield player in the Premier League at the moment. (Apart from Bobby 'Could this be 2010's Geoff Hurst' Zamora. Answer: No.)

But Villa have a lot on. They might just have to make do with the Carling Cup.
Some are touting Everton as a fifth candidate, and certainly the ease with which they turned over a bland United on Saturday might make you reckon they're in with a chance.

Although Fergie's poor loves were tired, bless 'em. By which he meant Rooney, of course, who is danger of arriving at the World Cup on a ventilator, if his boss continues to rely on his industry and creativity for the rest of the season.

Everton also have the bonus of a run-in that has all the threat of a kitten calendar. It's a maybe.

If I'd like Liverpool to fail this season, it's not 'cos it's Liverpool but 'cos it's someone other than the usual suspects and it just happens to be the Reds hanging off the last carriage of the gravy train right now. It'd be good to think that Spurs or Villa - both well represented by Englishmen - might grab fourth, but...

Rafa's promise ought to be achievable. Home to Blackburn, Pompey, Sunderland, West Ham. Away to Wigan, Burnley, Hull. There's 21 points right there. A couple of draws on top and I can't see anyone else matching that.

The only doubt is the boss. Can he take the handbrake off and sweep down the loops and curves to bag the gold at the bottom?

Or will Rafa revert to type, put some crampons in his boots and totter down slowly and safely - with Mancini probably holding him up - as they stumble to the certainty of Europa League qualification?


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