Saturday September 10th, 2011

Five thoughts from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:

1. Six contenders? Alex Ferguson said this week that there were six teams who could win the Premier League. Conveniently, a rare Saturday with all the leading teams in action, offers a chance to weigh the wisdom of Sir Alex. Now, this column does not know as much about winning Premier League titles as the United manager. Who does? But his assertion seemed to be rather a stretch. Did he really mean it, or was Ferguson indulging in some mind games? It would not be the first time. Was he giving a shout out to some under-pressure rivals? Or perhaps he was subtly increasing it by telling Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs fans that their managers had squads good enough to contend? Maybe he was trying to deflect attention from his young, fast-starting team. Or maybe he could not bring himself to admit in public that local rival Manchester City was United's one true rival. Ferguson helpfully divided his six contenders geographically. Certainly four of them fall into naturally in pairs of neighbors who are in similar situations. Predictions are generally a mugs game, but if Fergie's prepared to make them then this column isn't afraid to try.

2. Manchester's twin monsters. Two more crushing performances on Saturday kept the Manchester clubs rolling on at the top. Both have four victories in four games.

City is an overpowering machine. On Saturday, Roberto Mancini rested four players, including Edin Dzeko who had scored four in City's last league game. City wasted a penalty kick and hit the woodwork but it still cruised past Wigan, 3-0, with a hat trick by Sergio Agüero. City is still City. There are quirks in the club DNA. Strange things happen there. The departure of Garry Cook, the CEO, essentially for being a thoughtless jerk, only days after being patted on the back by this column, rather illustrates the point. For now though, the engine is humming.

Meanwhile, Ferguson remains impressively adaptable. Responding to changed rules, injuries, the talent available and, perhaps, Barcelona, he's suddenly made his team much younger. At 26, Ashley Young was the third-oldest member of the starting lineup on Saturday. If you were picking a composite team from the City and United elevens on Saturday, you would end up with more City players. United doesn't dominate midfield in the way City does. United's defense can look distracted. For now, it doesn't matter. United's youthful team may have an unproven look, but the club is the reigning champion and it is winning like a champion. United's attack seems capable of ripping opposing defenses open almost every time it attacks. It's winning easily. On Saturday, it was three goals up after 25 minutes at Bolton and both teams knew the game was over. United went on to win, 5-0. Wayne Rooney scored another hat trick. Last year's young star, Javier Hernandez, only starting because Danny Welbeck is injured, scored twice. City has scored 15 goals in four games and it can't keep up with United. This is a frightening team.

The Manchester teams will stutter at some point. One, or both, may go through a long rough patch. But the pace they are setting suggests that it will take well over 90 points to win the title, which pretty much reduces the title field to three teams.

3. Chelsea is the wild card. Chelsea's defense looks porous, its attack is stuttering, but it stayed on the heels of the two Manchester clubs with another ugly victory, this time, 2-1, at Sunderland. Chelsea has the talent and depth to stay with the pace the top two are setting, but it needs a lot of things to go right. The core of its team is aging. Chelsea needs most of its veterans to stay fit for most of the season. A little production from some of its recent signings would help. Juan Mata already looks good. Raul Mereiles also started on Saturday. But Fernando Torres was on the bench. If he can rediscover the form he showed before his knee injury 18 months ago, Chelsea's prospects will glow much brighter. Most intriguing is Romelu Lukaku, who was omitted on Saturday. He looks an absolute beast. Most of all, Chelsea needs its most important summer recruit, André Villas-Boas, to repeat the instant coaching magic he worked at his two previous clubs, although with 10 points after four games he is hardly a failure so far. A title looks a stretch, but Chelsea should finish third at least.

4. Liverpool faces a hard slog. There is a big talent gap between the top six and the other 14. But there's also much less rubbish in the Premier League than in recent seasons. The three promoted teams look a little soft, but, as a group, the other 11 also-rans look much more solid than in recent seasons. Those 11 clubs will make this season a much tougher battle for teams that lack the firepower of the Manchester duo. Liverpool dropped points against Sunderland, one of the summer's busy shoppers, on opening day. On Saturday, Liverpool lost, 1-0, to Stoke, another teams that has been stocking up on players. Liverpool could complain about two penalty decisions by Mark Clattenburg. The referee awarded Stoke a penalty when Jamie Carragher tussled with Jonathan Walters in the first half. Walters scored from the spot. Clattenburg did not give one when Matthew Upson appeared to handle Luis Suarez's cross in the second half. But Liverpool failed to turn pressure into goals, especially when Asmir Begovic saved twice in quick succession from Jordan Henderson. The club has spent heavily -- though largely on players who weren't on the rich three's radar. Many of the long-starved fans crave instant success. That may explain why Andy Carroll, who is far from the finished article, again started on the bench. He needs to play if he is ever to provide a return on a huge investment. The club, and its fans, needs to take a deep breath, block out Fergie's words, and give a remade team time to bed down. Fourth is a realistic target and would be a step forward.

5. Troubles in North London. Both Spurs and Arsenal spent the summer in long, damaging tugs of war with wealthier clubs that seemed to cripple them in the transfer market. Both squads have holes and both have been further weakened by injuries in the key areas of central defense and central midfield. Both started Saturday without a league victory this season. Both won for the first time. That doesn't mean their problems have gone away.

Spurs started the day last, but had only played twice, against the two Manchester clubs, and its victory was more impressive. It beat Wolves, a team that has given it fits in recent years, 2-0 at Molineux. Its two big late summer signings combined for the opening goal. Scott Parker, who generally had a pretty ragged afternoon, set up Emmanuel Adebayor. The striker scored neatly. Jermain Defoe, who, from his body language, likes playing with the hulking Adebayor, gave another sign that he is emerging from his long funk with the second. This was a confident step in the right direction.

Arsenal, meanwhile, was lucky but not good as it beat Swansea, 1-0, at the Emirates. Michel Vorm, the Swansea keeper, presented Andrei Arshavin with the only goal when he hit fullback Angel Rangel in the back with a throw. Arshavin did not miss the empty net. Swansea, yet to score in the Premier League, showed why. Even when Wojciech Szczesny, perhaps showing solidarity with Vorm, dropped the ball in the dying seconds, Danny Graham scooped his shot over the open goal from five yards. Maybe the victory will give Arsenal's morale the boost it needs. But at the moment, it looks behind even Spurs. They can hope Liverpool or Chelsea collapses, but, realistically, the two North London clubs are battling for fifth place.

Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.

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