Gap widening as money does the talking


Emmet Malone previews the season ahead and after a good short think predicts Chelsea will again lift the title and says the battle for relegation may well be fought out between the Ws of the top flight

Money, they sing, makes the world go round but in football it calls a rather different tune with cash meaning points which, in turn we all know, mean prizes. So, it is no great coincidence that Chelsea, where there was an almost embarrassing amount of roubles to play with last season, were also rewriting the record books as they strolled to their first title in half a century.

Little has changed since so if you're looking for a rough guide to the top end of the table come the middle of May, take a tip, just look at how they lined up at the start of this summer.

Liverpool, to be fair, may not require the intervention of the European Court of Justice to get into the Champions League again next year but as for the destination of the English game's most coveted piece of silverware? Anywhere other than Stamford Bridge would be a major shock.

Neither Chelsea nor their closest rivals for this year's title, Arsenal, looked particularly impressive when they met last Sunday but neither coach will have been especially bothered afterwards.

Arsenal look to be the one team with the quality in their first 11 to really rival the defending champions but Arsene Wenger clearly does not have anything like the depth to fall back on that Jose Mourinho enjoys. Nor has he been nearly as successful as the Portuguese over the summer in broadening his options. Alexander Hleb, the Belarus international midfielder may have had a fine pre-season but Wenger's other main targets eluded him while Asier Del Horno, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Hernan Crespo all improve the squad that rather easily secured the Premiership title last season.

If there is problem around Stamford Bridge it would appear to be a growing arrogance at every level of the club.

Mourinho's own expressions of self-belief and confidence in this team can be taken as part of the ongoing psychological warfare he is embroiled in with Wenger and Alex Ferguson. But when the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, starts talking about the champions coming from a group of one and the skipper, John Terry, observes that going through the season without losing a game is now the objective, it's hard to resist the suspicion that some sort of banana skin lies just around the corner.

Mourinho himself made a point of observing that "total domination" is impossible these days but with the money that has been spent there is little doubt that his employer expects something approaching it. The reality is that failing to win the league would now be considered a disappointment while the Champions League is likely to provide this year's barometer of continuing progress.

For Ferguson, meanwhile, the aim will be to at least improve on last year's showing when United finished 18 points adrift of Chelsea and six behind Arsenal. Against the background of the Glazier takeover, the failure to add substantially to last year's panel and the time it took even to get one of the team's existing stars, Rio Ferdinand, to sign his new contract, just holding its own would look like a testing enough target for the world's biggest club.

There were reports after Phil Neville was sold to Everton last week that the move had been forced upon Ferguson by the new owners in order to save £10 million (a combination of the fee received plus the player's wages over what remained of his contract) and if this is true then the future looks rather bleak for the Old Trafford outfit.

At least as alarming is the fact that neither United nor Ferguson seem to inspire anything like the awe they did in younger players a few years ago. The Scot would have hardly have tolerated Ferdinand's behaviour over the past few weeks when the team were European champions but then he would not have had to. These days neither his nor his club's name seem quite the magnet for young talent they once were, though, and with the new American owners holding the purse strings there is the fear that things are only going to get worse.

In the circumstances Liverpool might be in a position to eclipse United although it will take quite an improvement from Rafael Benitez's side. The Spaniard has continued his policy of hoovering up every available player back home but has also sprung the odd Houllier like surprise with, most remarkably, the addition of Peter Crouch to his growing squad.

The English striker's arrival at Anfield makes some sense given that the manager has also signed a couple of wingers and there is the sense that Liverpool might finally be on the way back.

Having earned just 58 points last season, though, Benitez might have to settle for re-establishing a gap between his side and those of the likes of David Moyes, Sam Allardyce and Steve McClaren before an assault on the big three somewhere further down the line.

Those interested in spotting a really dark horse for this year's title should stop wasting their time. It is a measure of just how unevenly the talent is distributed in the Premiership these days that Everton, despite possessing a manager widely regarded as one of the best in the English game and having qualified for the Champions League with a fourth place finish in May, can be backed at 250 to 1 for the title with some bookmakers. The sad part is, even an each-way bet looks like throwing your money away.

At the other end of the table, meanwhile, the pre-season convention of showing the table with the teams listed in alphabetical order may well provide us with a glimpse of how things will look come May.

West Brom, West Ham and Wigan occupy the relegation spots before a ball has been kicked in anger and you wouldn't get great odds on the same three sides still residing in the Premiership's basement when the last games are out of the way at the start of next summer.

Supporters of each could put forward at least one half-decent argument why their team will avoid the drop while those with an interest in up to half a dozen other sides, most notably Sunderland, Fulham and Portsmouth, will feel some cause for concern but two from the three Ws seem likely to depart again. They have, after all, spent just £15 million between them over the close season while Sunderland's outlay on new talent during the past three months doesn't bring the total much beyond £18 million.

As the current king of the modern English game, Jose Mourinho, will tell you for nothing, that doesn't buy you a decent midfielder in this market, never mind success.