Henry Winter: Premier League moves from Fab Four to Magnificent Seven
Stop all the stadium clocks, cut off the telephone-number salaries, Prevent the police-dog from barking with pie and mushy peas, Bring out the coffin of the Big Four, let the party begin.* The Big Four is dead. Long live the Famous Five, possibly the Super Six, even the Magnificent Seven. Today is the day when Manchester City could fully embed themselves among the elite, when Liverpool’s VIP membership comes under significant scrutiny. Like City, ambitious Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur push for acknowledgement by the aristocrats, the quartet who have finished in the Champions League positions season after season. In the cosy world at the top of the Premier League, four clubs enjoyed a relaxed game of musical chairs. There were four chairs. So whenever the Premier League music stopped in mid-May, the same clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, invariably settled back comfortably into the Champions League again. No pressure. Occasionally, those upstairs would be troubled by cheeky forays from those downstairs. Everton even got into the Champions League briefly one year. Villa pushed Arsenal close last season but faded. Spurs had a go but choked on their lasagne. The Premier League mood music has changed. This season is proving gloriously unpredictable. The old order is under sustained threat from the new firm of City, Villa and Spurs. They have money, lashings of it in City’s case, and outstanding managers in Mark Hughes, Martin O’Neill and Harry Redknapp, respectively (and don’t completely rule out David Moyes’ Everton). Hughes spoke for all the contenders when observing “that the invincibility of the top four isn’t there any more’’, predicting a more “open race’’. City’s manager added: “There’s a lot of clubs, ourselves included, that think we can take points off the top four, which hasn’t been the case for many seasons. It’s good for the Premier League.’’ No wonder Barclays executives fished down the back of the boardroom sofa to find the cash to meet Richard Scudamore’s increased demand to sponsor the Premier League. The negotiation went something like this: “£82m over three years, please.’’ “How much? Up from £68m! Why?’’ “Because we’re worth it.’’ And they are. This season is proving a classic. Sadly, the outpourings of virtuosity are not sustained – with the odd respectful nod to Andrei Arshavin, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Craig Bellamy – as the defending is too poor. It is the shocks that have lit up the Premier League. The quality seems spread more evenly in the top half of the table. Attractive teams like Steve Bruce’s Sunderland and Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic add to the footballing festivities, creating the occasional upset. Liverpool lost to Sunderland, who almost took three points off Manchester United, who narrowly beat Manchester City. Hughes’ side put four goals past Arsenal, who did the same to Wigan, who embarrassed Chelsea. Carlo Ancelotti’s side also succumbed to Villa, who also conquered Liverpool having struggled against the Big Four in recent seasons. Spurs also defeated Liverpool. Eye-catching in the short term, maintaining the challenge in the long term is the real test. What gives hope that City, Villa and Spurs can make it a Magnificent Seven, regardless of occasional blips, is that they have not simply strengthened their starting XIs. Hughes, O’Neill and Redknapp have deepened their squads. When winter bites, when resources are traditionally stretched, decent reserves can step up. Look at Eastlands. If Bellamy’s knee plays up, Martin Petrov sprints on. Even when Robinho is fit, the Brazilian who will start for the World Cup favourites next summer is not guaranteed a place at City. Any bench also containing Stephen Ireland, a shoo-in for most starting XIs, deserves respect while Michael Johnson makes a welcome return from his assorted travails. Anfield must glance longingly at the exceptional Gareth Barry, who should have replaced Xabi Alonso but Liverpool dithered, allowing City to strike. Rafa Benítez checked on Lee Cattermole but decided to wait for Alberto Aquilani to get fit. Until his unfortunate injury, Cattermole has shone under Bruce at the Stadium of Light. Surveying the danger posed by Bruce, Hughes and Sir Alex Ferguson, Benítez must feel there is a United conspiracy against Liverpool. Where Benítez needs time to persuade the club’s owners to act in the transfer market, Hughes can swoop suddenly. Now that they have bought into Hughes’ vision, the Arabs at City exude far more class than the Americans at Liverpool. For all the rising hope at Eastlands, Hughes still needs to improve his back four as none would get into the rearguards of United, Arsenal or Chelsea. Wayne Bridge versus Patrice Evra, Gael Clichy or Ashley Cole? No chance. City undoubtedly menace the Big Four. So do Villa. Look at the bench at Villa Park. The centre-forward deemed indispensable by Fabio Capello for England, Emile Heskey, sits impatiently behind the dervish figure of O’Neill, called on only when John Carew or Gabby Agbonlahor tire. Other talents wait in the wings, like Fabien Delph – quick and hardly a shrinking violet in the tackle – while Stewart Downing recovers from injury. O’Neill has also mended Villa’s Achilles’ heel, central defence, with the inspired recruiting and pairing of Richard Dunne and James Collins. Look at White Hart Lane. Following Ferguson’s advice that four good strikers are essential, Redknapp can perm any two from Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Robbie Keane and Roman Pavlyuchenko (although the Russian could be sold in January). Liverpool lack such firepower. No wonder the door to the exclusive Champions League club is open.
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