THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

With Aston Villa having an outside chance of breaking into the top four and the billionaire owners at Man City the four Premier League giants might be starting to panic

It’s rare that more than one of the Big Four has a bad weekend. That all should fail to score on the same day, November 24 – with Fulham and Newcastle’s draws at Liverpool and Chelsea, respectively, treated like cup shocks – was a statistical fluke. Nonetheless the fact that the cartel have looked unexpectedly vulnerable at times this season ought to be a cause for celebration, given that their domestic dominance is sapping the life out of the league. Aston Villa’s goalless home draw with Man Utd – greeted by a curious, cricket-derived headline in the Express, Villa’s Bunnies Find Some Bite – 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 followed on from a comfortable win at Arsenal the previous week and a widespread sense that, finally, here was a club well placed to break into the elite, at the expense of a team being widely derided as “bottlers”.

Despite Champions League progress, Arsenal had a turbulent November, with William Gallas being stripped of the captaincy (Gall Over boomed the Mirror) after L’Equipe published some incendiary extracts from his autobiography in which he criticises team-mates for being “big headed” and “obsessed by money”. Arsenal’s mounting discomfort was heightened by their 3-0 defeat at Man City, which had the News of the World’s Rob Beasley offering trenchant support to Gallas: “The new crop of Gunners are a gutless bunch of wimps with no stomach for a fight.” They showed some at Chelsea, though.

City, too, could shake up the status quo with their owners set on spending prodigiously in January even if the top targets, Kaká and Gigi Buffon, fail to be lured by offers to treble their wages. In the long term this is almost guaranteed to have a destabilising effect, with Mark Hughes likely to be the first in a succession of managers undermined by interference from the boardroom. However, City have already performed a valuable service this season in annoying Roman Abramovich. Chelsea’s owner was apparently so put out by being gazumped over the signing of Robinho in August that he can’t contemplate letting Wayne Bridge move to Eastlands: “Abramovich has made it clear to club officials he will not do business with City – at any price,” reported the Sunday Mirror’s Paul Smith. The News of the World, however, thinks that his resolve will be sorely tested next summer, claiming that Sheikh Mansour is set to bid £60 million for John Terry after Hughes had been asked “to identify the leading player in the world in every position”.

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, we can at least feel consoled that all the others are frustrated and angry to varying degrees; as England manager Ron Greenwood once said, disappointment is all part of football.

From WSC 263 January 2009

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