The longer this Premier League season goes on, the clearer it is that there is a mini-league, right at the top, of teams who are frankly in a different class to the rest. The question is – how big is this league within a league? The thoroughbreds appear obvious – Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. But coming up on the rails, we seem to have decent stayers in Everton and Spurs. These latter two appear destined to create a buffer-zone – a sort of No-Man’s Land – between the Champions League qualifiers above them and the rest below.
It’s been the kind of weekend to reinforce such impressions. Arsenal were below their fluent best and reduced to ten men, but won competently at Palace 2-0. Chelsea and Manchester City served up a gourmet’s delight of a match that looked likely to be a top-drawer draw until Joe Hart’s late cock-up presented Torres with a winner. Liverpool with Suarez irresistible and Sturridge’s sublime finish look as if they are intent on returning to the top table. Spurs and Everton won as well, without the shimmering class of the top four, but hanging in there.
But what of Man U? What indeed. The media are still liable to get into a heck of a froth about them, given the least encouragement. One TV commentator yesterday was screaming “Never write them off!” as they came from behind to beat ….. Stoke. At home. Ring-a-ding ding. The gulf between the formerly dominant Pride of Devon and the cream at the top of the pail, though, is currently a yawning chasm. On today’s form, Man City and Chelsea, engaged in a titanic struggle at Stamford Bridge, would have had no trouble sweeping aside the fragmented resistance and feeble assaults that were in evidence at the Theatre of Hollow Myths.
If I were a Man U fan, I’d be worried. Actually, if I were a Man U fan, I’d be utterly disgusted with myself and would probably curl up and die of self-loathing, but you take my meaning. Man U fans should be worried. Their edifice is built on perpetual Champions League qualification, and that must be in severe doubt as things stand. If they don’t qualify for Europe’s premier competition, and all the oodles of millions that go with it, how will the Glazers’ balance sheet look then? “More than a bit sick” is a very educated guess.
Indeed, far from trying to figure out which of that likely top four they might hope to displace, the money men at Man U should be scratching their heads and wondering whether they can realistically hope to out-perform Spurs and Everton – because if they can’t, then a finish outside the top six beckons, with no European competition at all. Then that Glazer-inspired leveraged buyout, with all the debt it has accrued, starts to look seriously scary. But, as you’d currently expect either Everton or Spurs to beat Man U, this is a real prospect – the ailing champs have no divine right to a European berth (although I’d bet good money they’d get a wild card through winning the Fair-Play League, or the Refs’ Best Mates League, or something). The bottom line is, though – the immediate prospects for Man U look as bleak as they have for a while.
You don’t have to look far for the reason behind this. The tyrant is no longer on his dictatorial throne – Fergie is gone. Instead, you have a middling sort of chap in Moyes, about whom the current joke runs that he’s wanted to get Everton above Man U for ten years, and has only now managed to achieve it. With Fergie went Man U’s edge – the fear of the wattled Glaswegian’s wrath which was the best motivation tool of all. Try though the media might – driven by their concerns over markets and reading/viewing figures – you cannot, as they say, polish a turd. Trying to talk up Man U’s chances of league success this season is a futile attempt to do precisely that.
So, the Kings are dead – long live the Kings. But which Kings? Who will be ascending the throne? It’s difficult to say, because the clutch of class at the top of the Premier League is closely-matched indeed, and all the more thrilling and entertaining for that. My heart says Arsenal, because I love their football – but sadly the virtuoso moments like Wilshere’s finish, on the end of a quicksilver three-man dance through Norwich’s defence, sometimes lack for the requisite steel to back them up, as Dortmund demonstrated last week. But Arsenal will be up there.
Liverpool will be there too. But I fancy Arsenal and Liverpool to be third and fourth at the end of the campaign. Chelsea and City should fight it out, and out of those two, it’s just a case of “may the best team win”. With my arm twisted up my back, I might just go for City – if they can cut out those suicidal mistakes.
And it might just be worth a punt on Man U to finish behind Everton and Spurs at seventh or below. You’ll probably get good odds – try BetFred, if he’s not already paying out on bets for the Pride of Devon to win the league. For some, the New Order will take a bit of getting used to…