LONDON - Agence France-Presse
Gaining membership of the Premier League's exclusive top-four club is an increasingly arduous task and only one of English football's chasing pack has a realistic chance of forcing their way in this season.
Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool begin the domestic campaign this weekend as overwhelming favorites to dominate the Champions League places for the fourth successive year.
The huge financial rewards of regular appearances in Europe's elite club competition have allowed the country's biggest teams to establish such a stranglehold on the top end of the Premier League that it takes a huge leap of faith to imagine anyone else filling those coveted positions.
Of the teams aspiring to those riches only Tottenham looks to have the necessary credentials to mount a significant challenge.
Juande Ramos took just five months to win his first trophy after arriving at White Hart Lane from Sevilla but that didn't stop the Spanish coach carrying out a total overhaul of his squad in the close-season.
Disappointed by the way Spurs were becalmed in 11th place after their League Cup final victory over Chelsea, Ramos axed a hosts of established stars.
Despite Robbie Keane jumping ship to Liverpool and Manchester United target Dimitar Berbatov making it clear that he wants to leave, Ramos has assembled a fascinating mix of attacking talent.
Croatia's Luka Modric, one of the game's last genuine playmakers, bewitched opponents and fans alike at EURO 2008 and fears that he might prove too slight to cope with the aggression of English football ignore an innate ability to find space to work his magic.
England winger David Bentley, a 15-million-pound capture from Blackburn, and Mexican striker Giovani Dos Santos, from Barcelona, arrived to add more creativity to the side, while Darren Bent has looked so sharp during pre-season that Fabio Capello is thinking of handing him an England call-up.
With Brazilian keeper Heurelho Gomes a steady influence at the back, Ramos only needs to keep Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate fit to have a team capable of pushing Arsenal for fourth place.
When Mark Hughes was appointed as Manchester City's new manager in a blaze of headlines heralding the multi-million pound backing he would receive from the club's Thai owner Thaksin Shinawatra, it seemed Eastlands could be the stage for some of the most exciting action this season.
But within a matter of weeks the whole adventure has gone sour. Shinawatra has been caught in a legal wrangle in Thailand that saw the majority of his assets frozen, forcing him to scale down his plans for City and flee the Far East.
The credit crunch has bitten so hard at City that Hughes reportedly threatened to walk out after a row over the proposed sale of Stephen Ireland to Sunderland - a deal he knew nothing about.
Everton has been the most likely contender for a top four place in recent years. It was the last team to break the big four's monopoly back in 2005 when it edged Liverpool into fifth place.
David Moyes' side finished fifth last season but the 11-point gap to the top four looks set to grow larger this year.
The Merseyside club has yet to spend a single pound in the transfer market and, although Moyes expects to make several signings before the end of August, his squad looks far too small to compete with the Premier League behemoths.
Under Martin O'Neill's astute leadership, Aston Villa is often seen as a potential top four team.
But the Gareth Barry transfer saga, which shows no signs of coming to end after months of bitterness, has been a major distraction that could derail Villa's hopes.