Exclusive club opens its doors
It was only ever an artificial entity, one whose existence was never formal. Yet it appeared unstoppable, a private members' club with the authority to govern a division. The Big Four had an air of permanence; for four successive seasons, they comprised the top four in the Premier League, for six in a row they all competed in the Champions League.
Then, abruptly, impressions changed. Enter Tottenham Hotspur, exit Liverpool as last year's final standings revealed a newcomer to the cartel. Is it a new Big Four? A diminishing group of a Big Two or Three? Or an expanded Big Six or Eight? Arsene Wenger subscribes to the latter view, arguing that the Premier League is becoming more competitive. "I feel there will be more teams fighting for the title," the Arsenal manager said. "It makes it more interesting and open as well; we have seen the start of that last season as well, all of the top teams lost points against the second part of the Premier League.
"That trend could even become stronger this year. There are the three who dominated last year, then you have Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City, Aston Villa and you also have one team who is a surprise at the start of the season." The sense of an added unpredictability was reinforced by the division's most decorated player. Ryan Giggs has won 11 titles but believes Liverpool, despite finishing seventh last season, are potential champions.
"Two years ago they were close to winning the Premier League and you can never write them off. It just depends on how it goes," the Manchester United vice-captain said. "It is dangerous to write off a team with Liverpool's history. They have won the same amount of leagues as us. You cannot just dismiss that. They are a huge club and a massive team." It is not often that Old Trafford and Anfield are in agreement, but Liverpool's summer signing Joe Cole concurred. "The target of a club like this is the number one place," he said. "There was a lot of difference last season but we are starting afresh and we will be doing everything we can."
Liverpool are among the established elite. It is possible to interpret last season as a blip, caused by injuries, in-fighting, the loss of Xabi Alonso and a lack of morale. Among the emerging forces, however, there are signs of increased confidence. Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, is also confident. "We could contend for the title," he said. "We've got the players. We've got to aim for it. We could win it, it's not impossible.
"Some people might look at what we achieved last season and say it was a flash in the pan. We have to prove them wrong and really go for it. Somebody has got to do it at some time. It can't all just be Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool; why not Tottenham?" Encouragement may come from elsewhere in north London. Wenger's theory that the best are more fallible was proved in Tottenham's emphatic win in April over Chelsea, the eventual champions.
There is the sense, too, that the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2009 brought United back towards the pack. Chelsea's total of 86 points last season was the lowest of a title-winning team since 2003 and, prolific as they were, both their defending and their hesitant away form highlighted some frailties. It suggests the gulf between the best and the rest is coming down. Then there is another factor to consider: Manchester City. Money and ambition are threats to the status quo in any walk of life, and City possess both in large quantities. Not since Arsenal in 1989 has a team won the title after finishing outside the top four the previous year, but these are not normal circumstances.
Inside and outside the club, expectations are high. It may be a tactic from rivals to increase the strain on the nouveau riche, but pressure will be constantly applied from outsiders. "If I went out now and brought in the four players I wanted from anywhere, we would win the title," Redknapp said after City signed David Silva, Yaya Toure, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov. "If we went out and bought four world-class players, no matter what the price, we would have a fantastic chance."
Recruitment has rendered their rivals fearful. "With [target] Mario Balotelli, Manchester City will challenge for the title, not just fourth," Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, said. "The Premier League is ideal place for him. Mario is a crazy talent. Roberto Mancini has already bought some fantastic players. City have spent the most in Europe and will be fighting for the title." For others, the fear is that strength in depth will prove decisive. "You need a squad to win the title and City will have 28 or 29 players," Martin O'Neill said before quitting Aston Villa two days ago. "So they shouldn't have any problems with injuries. You get injuries and suspensions and tiredness, but they can rotate better than rest of us. That's the biggest difference."
Their challengers' public pronouncements suggest an inevitability about City's progress to silverware. Chelsea, the last club to possess such financial power, duly won it after Roman Abramovich's injection of cash and Redknapp said: "Manchester City will be a massive factor in the title race this season. They will eventually win the championship, whether it is this year, next year or the year after. It is only a matter of time until they win the Premier League - that's my opinion. They have got such tremendous backing. And there is every chance it will be this season. They are only going to get stronger."
The message from Eastlands has been defiant. "I think people are scared," Mancini said a fortnight ago. "Other teams are saying this because for 10 years there were only four teams challenging for the title. All these teams over the years have spent a lot of money, not just us. Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool. They seem to have done like City do now." Gareth Barry, the City midfielder, added: "It used to be known as the Big Four. Not anymore."
But what is it? While City and Tottenham talk about winning the division, Villa do not, especially with O'Neill's departure. Below them last year were the team who caused Mancini most problems. "We had a lot of difficulty against Everton," he said. "They had a so-so start but otherwise they might have ended up in fourth position." Now Everton are alone among the eight prime contenders. They do not have the distraction European football provides. They also have a record of overachievement on meagre resources and, with their premier players fully fit, can be seen as the antidote to City in their bid to crack the top four.
One possibility is that there will be a five-way fight for fourth, or six teams competing for two spots in the Champions League, another that the duopoly of Chelsea and Manchester United, who have shared the last six titles, will be disrupted. Either way the notion of the Big Four will be consigned to the past. That is certainly the view of a man who likes to have the last word in any debate. "What they call the Big Four has been squashed," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "Tottenham have come in to it and you'd think they'd make progress, Manchester City have bought again and you obviously have to put them in the equation and Everton will come into it. There could be a lot of dangers." email@example.com
Published: August 11, 2010 04:00 AM