The Big Four, and Money, Dominate Early EPL Season

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The New York Sun

Soccer fans can excuse themselves for missing the opening matches of England’s Premier League season, given that action kicked off during the Olympics. Not to worry: The quality of early season play is far from the best, and the results can be misleading for projecting how everyone will fare over the season. The Olympics are now behind us, and sports fans can once again devote all of their early morning viewing to soccer. With that, here are three key story lines to follow for the Premier League season.

Can Anyone Disrupt the Big Four?

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool make up England’s “Big Four.” Their aim, at minimum, is to finish fourth, and secure a spot in Europe’s lucrative and prestigious Champions League. Prior to the start of the season, one of the most debated topics is whether any team can upset the natural order at the top of the table.

Before the start of this season, Tottenham, as it did before last season, received the most buzz as the likeliest team to break into the Big Four. Two seasons ago, Arsenal managed to squeak past its bitter North London rivals on the last day of the season. After that performance, pundits predicted Tottenham would overtake Arsenal the next year. But Arsenal surprised with a much-improved performance, and Tottenham couldn’t recover from a slow start that kept it among the bottom three until November.

This year, pundits have gone double or nothing on Tottenham, again identifying it as the club that can overtake Arsenal, and it’s true that Arsenal has not looked strong to start the season. The Gunners lost several key players in the summer, with the departures of Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb, and Gilberto Silva, leaving behind a threadbare midfield that was badly exposed in the loss to Fulham this past weekend. But Tottenham has gotten off to a miserable start, losing its first two matches.

Sadly then — at least for neutral fans — it looks like business as usual at the top. Arsenal finished third last year, only four points off title winners United. Expect them to slip further off the pace this year, but not to fall below fourth.

Will Manchester United Win its third title in a row?

Manchester United has won the league two seasons running, edging Chelsea last year on the final day of the season. Chelsea won the league the two years prior. The Big Four may be closed to new members, but the title race is closed to Arsenal and Liverpool.

The league champion therefore will be either Chelsea or ManU. Will Chelsea’s new manager and new additions be enough to overcome United’s explosive offense and league-best defense? Yes.

To the frustration of United fans, manager Sir Alex Ferguson has not added to his squad this summer. While Tottenham’s talented striker, Dimitar Berbatov, has been linked repeatedly with a move to Manchester, it has yet to materialize (though there are still a few days left in the transfer window). After winning the league title in 2006-07, Ferguson acted quickly to improve his squad, bringing in four top players: striker Carlos Tevez, and midfielders Anderson, Nani, and Owen Hargreaves. The reinforcements, especially Tevez, were crucial to last year’s success.

But this summer, Chelsea has owned the headlines. The new manager, (Big) Phil Scolari, former coach of the Portuguese national team, has added talented compatriots to the squad. Full back Jose Bosingwa (acquired before Scolari was named the manager, but reportedly with his approval), and midfielder Deco both starred for Scolari on the national team. Scolari is also pursuing a player from the other national team he coached: Brazil. Robinho, with his sublime dribbling skills, is likely the next addition. Chelsea looks primed to take back the crown from Manchester United.

Will any of the three newly promoted teams survive the season?

At the end of each year, the three worst teams are relegated from the Premier League and replaced by the three best teams from the Championship. This year, West Brom, Stoke, and Hull have ascended to the top flight. Usually, at least one of the promoted teams manages to avoid relegation in its first year. But each year, the gap in quality between the Premier League and the Championship grows, making it harder for the promoted sides to survive.

Teams near the bottom of last year’s Premier league table, Bolton, Fulham, and Sunderland, in particular, have strengthened their squads significantly for this season, piling more pressure on West Brom, Stoke, and Hull. For the first time since the 1997-98 season look for all three promoted sides to get relegated.

These three story lines share a common thread: the outsized influence of money in the Premier League. The competition is winner-take-all, both in revenue and titles, and the result is a vastly uneven playing field. Until the Premier League finds a more equitable revenue distribution model, the suspense surrounding the title race, the competition for the top four spots, and the relegation battle will suffer. Eventually, this will redound back in the form of less fan interest, less television money, and lower overall revenues for world soccer’s richest and most popular league. At that point, faced with a shrinking pie, Manchester United and Chelsea will regret they didn’t share bigger slices of the bigger pie when they had the chance.

The New York Sun

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