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Has the Premier League's Big Four become a Big Two?

The Big Four's record over the last six years
The Big Four's record over the last six years

By Andrew McKenzie

Remember that quote from Kevin Keegan a few years ago?

Not the "I'd love it if we beat them" rant at Sir Alex Ferguson but his warning about the Premier League being "in danger of becoming one of the most boring, but great, leagues in the world".

His outburst, back in the summer of 2008 when manager of Newcastle, was prompted by the continued dominance of the "Big Four" of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

That vice-like grip was prised open last season, with Tottenham replacing a freefalling Liverpool in the Champions League berths.

Ferguson declared that "the old established top four has gone" but the Manchester United manager's assertion that the Premier League "is much more of an open field - and that can only be a good thing" is debateable.

606: DEBATE

For many observers, when it comes to picking the title winners, this season promises to be as wide open as the last few... Chelsea or Manchester United?

So says a poll of experts by BBC Sport, with only six of the 34 participants choosing a team other than Chelsea or United to be crowned Premier League champions in 2011.

So say the bookmakers and the formbook agrees.

Chelsea and Manchester United have won the last six Premier League titles, while 14 of the last 18 major domestic trophies have ended up at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge - add the Community Shield into the equation and that figure becomes 19 out of 24.

Since the 2003-04 season, when Arsenal's 'Invincibles' won the title, the Gunners and Liverpool have won only one domestic trophy each - a feat emulated by Tottenham and Portsmouth.

The top four in the Premier League over the last six years
The top four in the Premier League over the last six years and their final points

Infostrada's Euro Club Index predicts that Chelsea and United will finish 12 points clear of Arsenal this season and 15 ahead of Liverpool, suggesting the gap between the top two and their rivals appears to be widening.

Former England manager and now BBC Radio 5 live pundit Graham Taylor believes the title race is a case of "tossing a coin between Chelsea and Manchester United".

The dominance of two teams is no longer something that only happens in Scotland it seems. Nor does it even appear to be a British thing.

In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have occupied the top two spots in La Liga for five of the last six seasons, while Roma have finished runners-up to Inter Milan in four of the five Serie A campaigns since Juventus fell from grace in such scandalous fashion.

CHALLENGERS TO THE BIG FOUR
Everton - 59.67
Tottenham - 57.33
Villa - 54.17
Man City - 51.50
Average points in the last six years of the Premier League

Deloitte's annual study of Premier League finances suggests that the extra spending power of the "Big Two" has contributed heavily to any gap that has emerged.

There appears to be a strong correlation between wage costs and position throughout the table but particularly at the summit, with Chelsea and Manchester United occupying the top two spots every year from 2005 until 2009 (figures are not available for last season but the status quo is not expected to have changed).

Gunners boss Arsene Wenger retains hopes of ending the club's title drought this season, confident they are one of "six or seven" teams that could challenge for the title despite another modest summer of relatively spending at the Emirates.

"It does not go into financial consideration," he said. "Have the other clubs more money or less money? It is not important. It is whether the players are better players or lesser players."

In contrast, money is no object at Manchester City, with their billionaire owners bankrolling the additions of Yaya Toure from Barcelona, Valencia star David Silva, Alexander Kolarov from Lazio and Hamburg's Jerome Boateng.

The arrival of Inter's Mario Balotelli and Aston Villa's James Milner would take their off-season additions to comfortably in excess of £100m.

Manager Roberto Mancini believes his new-look squad can make the leap from last season's fifth-place finish to top spot.

"For 10 years there were only four teams challenging for the title," said the Italian. "This year, there are five."

But big bucks do not always guarantee titles. Spending sprees by Newcastle (1996-8) and then Leeds (1999-2001), for example, ultimately troubled the club's accountants more than the trophy cabinet.

When you play at a club like City who are really ambitious you have to accept you may be on the bench

Man City's Patrick Vieira

The Daily Mirror found that only five times in the 18 Premier League seasons has the summer's biggest spenders gone on to win the title.

Salomon Kalou arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 2006 along with the likes of Michael Ballack, John Obi Mikel, Ashley Cole and Andrei Shevchenko. It was the third summer in a row Chelsea had spent big but the Ivory Coast star had to wait until this year to win his first Premier League winner's medal.

"It doesn't mean because you bring in 10 new players you will be top," he said. "Manchester City did the same thing last summer."

Patrick Vieira, who was a key part of Arsenal's all-conquering side in 2004 and is now aiming for a fourth Premier League title with City, admits that spending big to assemble a talented squad has its potential drawbacks.

"It will be frustrating, of course, as quality players do not like to be on the bench," said the World Cup winner. "But when you play at a club like City, who are really ambitious, you have to accept it."

While Manchester City's extravagant route to the top may not be to everybody's taste, league chiefs believe their emergence as a genuine contender can only be a good thing for their product.

But the bookmakers are not convinced City have done enough to make up the 19 points they finished behind Chelsea last season.

"City obviously have unlimited funds and the odds suggest they will break into the Big Four but the title is likely to prove elusive for now," said a William Hill spokesman.

City may be worth a punt, especially if they continue to spend, but the smart money appears to be on the Premier League trophy heading to a familiar home at the end of this season.


What the managers are saying about the title race

Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti
"We have the same aims as last year but last year we went out of the Champions League too early. It is not so easy to be competitive in every competition but we have to defend the Premier League title."

Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson:
"My players are hungry. When you don't win the title, you must do it the next year. That's the great thing about football, you've always got next year."

Arsenal's Arsene Wenger:
"We have a good chance. The most important thing is that we have that belief. I think we can compete with the players we have."

Tottenham's Harry Redknapp:
"I feel we could contend for the title - we have got the players. Last year, we went in saying we wanted to finish in the top four. If you don't aim for things, you have no chance."

Manchester City's Roberto Mancini:
"We have a big opportunity to win the league if we believe and do our jobs. If we can put together a team in the short time available, then we can. Other teams will have the same teams as they had last year. I must put new players together in a short time."

Liverpool's Roy Hodgson:
"The ambitions of Liverpool should always be of the very, very highest level and that's what we're aspiring to. I'm here for the long haul to do the job that needs to be done - hopefully winning trophies very, very quickly."

Everton's David Moyes:
"I'd like us to finish first, even if it's perhaps unrealistic. But I can't sit there in front of my captain and my players and say I want to finish fifth or fourth. I couldn't do that to my team. I have to say we're going to finish first."



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see also
Chelsea 1-3 Man Utd
08 Aug 10 |  Football
Who are the champions? First
12 Aug 10 |  Premier League
Man City complete 24m Silva deal
14 Jul 10 |  Man City
Scudamore defends 'boring' League
07 May 08 |  Football
Power of top four concerns Keegan
06 May 08 |  Newcastle
Football on the BBC
11 Aug 10 |  Football
Transfers - August 2010
01 Sep 10 |  Football


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