Sunday 23 November ~
It’s rare that more that one of the big four has a bad weekend. Indeed since Chelsea joined the previous big three after the injection of Roman Abramovich’s millions five years ago, there has not been a round of fixtures in which all four failed to score. Hence Fulham’s and Newcastle’s clean sheets at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively have been hailed like cup shocks. This is a statistical fluke that won’t be repeated, but the fact that all have looked unexpectedly vulnerable at various times this season ought to be a cause for celebration.
The existence of the four-team cartel at the top of the Premier League is defended by some, and not only by supporters of the clubs involved. Having hoovered up playing talent from around the world, the quartet are all capable of playing spectacular football and are a match for any other teams in Europe, as is borne out by their habitual stroll through the group stages of the Champions League. But for all those fans and pundits who applaud the exhibition football that the big four are capable of playing, many more would insist their domestic dominance has progressively sapped the life out of the league, with the other 16 teams often reduced to the role played by the opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. And that hasn’t just involved regular thrashings for relegation fodder. Everton finished fifth in 2007-08, having spent almost the entire season in the top six, yet in ten League and cup matches against the big four they avoided defeat only once.
Aston Villa’s goalless draw with Man Utd at Villa Park yesterday might not seem like a sign of changing times given that it simply ended a run of 14 defeats against the same opponents. But it follows on from a win at Arsenal a week ago and a widespread sense that Villa are as well placed any team has been in recent years to break into the cosy cartel. Arsenal’s mounting discomfort was heightened by their 3-0 defeat at Man City, the other side who could shake up the status quo. City’s owners are determined to pump cash into the team because their investment is primarily a means of promoting themselves globally. In the long term this will surely have a destabilising effect with Mark Hughes likely to be the first in a succession of managers whose team-building plans are likely to be undermined by interference from the boardroom.
However, City have already performed a valuable service this season in annoying Roman Abramovich who was so put out by being gazumped over the singing of Robinho in August that he doesn’t want to have any dealings with his Middle Eastern counterparts at Eastlands. Football would be immensely better off if it were not subject to the attentions of billionaire hobbyists. But if one them is satisfied by their handiwork, it does at least mean that all the others are frustrated and angry to varying degrees – and, as England manager Ron Greenwood once said, disappointment is all part of football.