Things are a little tight at the top of the English Premier League, and it's making people nervous. Only seven points separate the top seven teams, and the pack could further congest if Aston Villa, Manchester City and Arsenal win their games in hand.
There's talk in England now of a "Magnificent Seven," comprising the "Big Four" plus Villa, City and Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger told The Sun that: "What is interesting in the league is it is much tighter than everybody predicted before the season. There are six or seven teams that have a chance at the moment. So we have all to be happy, take that potential in an intelligent way and think that when we are cruising we have to keep focused and not lose it."
"Cruising," Arsène? Really? Interesting. With the "Big Four" of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United established as a fixture for around a decade now, what's changed?
There's a certain element of inevitability about the change, there always is, Team Limey thinks in a pensive, sentimental Tom Hanks kind of way. The Big Four may recently have been seen as impenetrable, but those of you old enough to remember Kevin Arnold running through twilight-tinged suburbia will also recall the former "Big Five" of 1980s and early '90s English soccer -- Man. United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Spurs -- and will know already that nothing lasts forever.
City, Spurs and Villa may have had their ups and downs, but these are big clubs with long and proud pedigrees. Since '06, Villa, under one of the game's managerial greats in Martin O'Neill, steadily has been developing an exciting young team that has seen players such as Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor rise to prominence.
City, too, for all its money, has cultivated some great young talent in Michael Johnson (look out for this rising star and potential future England captain, returning now from injury), Steven Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Micah Richards. Millions spent on quality like Robinho, Shay Given, Gareth Barry, Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tévez have, of course, propelled the Citizens upwards. Quickly.
Meanwhile, over at White Hart Lane, Harry Redknapp has added his usual chirpy charm to a club that also has a healthy wad to spend. Since the start of '08, no less than 13 players have been bought by Spurs for fees exceeding $10 million apiece.
But it's not just the increased competition at the top that's causing nerves. Top teams are also finding the minor sides stiffer opponents this year and are drawing and losing games against them. "This year has the potential to be as open as it has ever been," said Mark Hughes after City's 1-1 draw at Wigan. "The top four teams will drop points. That has been evident at the beginning of the season and it will continue."
Pundits typically have put this down to the exciting nature of the EPL, but we have another explanation. Rising TV revenues have meant that money raised through participating in the European competitions is falling as a percentage of club's income. Overall though, we agree with Hughes that more intense competition "has to be good for the Premier League."
An eventful couple of rounds has definitely seen English football's secondary domestic cup competition come back in vogue. League Cup (or Carling Cup, in corporate speak) attendances are up, and many of the bigger teams have been fielding what, on paper, appear to be stronger teams than they have been in recent years when the value of the tournament was questionable and in some club's eyes, the tournament was seen as somewhat of an unwanted distraction.
Strengthened collections of bit-part players at leading sides, and a growing desire from the also-rans to fill bare trophy cabinets has led to a greater prevalence of the bigger teams appearing in the latter stages. This year's cup is testament to that, with six of the eight quarterfinalists sitting in the top seven of the current EPL standings.
One club with cobwebs adorning their cabinet is Manchester City. The last time City won a major trophy was in fact the League Cup in 1976, a time when club owner Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan was a 6-year-old boy who probably wasn't dreaming in his Abu Dhabi palace of City players Joe Royle and Dennis Tueart. After Wednesday's 5-1 mauling of Championship side Scunthorpe United, MarkHughes made it clear City wasn't playing for match practice. "We made a statement right at the start we would take it seriously," he said.
City will have its fingers crossed when the draw for the quarterfinals is made on Saturday, as it aims to make its first final of a major tournament since 1981. Its opponent in that year's FA Cup final was Tottenham, which has an impressive pedigree in the League Cup reaching last year's final and winning it the previous year. Spurs convincingly beat Everton 2-0 on Tuesday.
The scorer of the winning goal in the FA Cup final in '81 was Ricky Villa, which neatly takes us to another of City and Tottenham's rivals for a top four finish, Aston Villa. Both the Birmingham side and its opponents, high-flying eighth-place Sunderland, fielded very strong sides in Tuesday night's match. There was however a rare start for Villa's goalkeeping understudy, Brad Guzan. The American was superb, saving one penalty in normal time and a further three in the penalty shootout to send his side into the quarterfinals.
In our last column, we put forward the 23 players we think we will be pressing their team England suits in preparation for next June's football jamboree in South Africa. Our selections and musing have raised much debate among the Limey readership.
Stephen Williams from Tulsa commented that seeing the Three Lions' potential squad on paper made him rate English chances higher than he had done previously. "The depth in the midfield is among the two or three best in the world," he writes, "and if Fabio Capello gets his choice of healthy players, England will be scary good next summer." But Stephen also heeded a warning to England should injuries befall the team (as they have done over the last few tournaments): "If injury hits one or two of the key players, England could dwindle to resembling Portugal, with 'Wayne Rooney and friends' battling to get to Brazil along with 'Cristiano Ronaldo & Co.'"
On the subject of the lizard that used to grace our EPL, William questioned our view that David Beckham is still "best dead-ball deliverer in the world" by throwing some tatty trademarks back at us: "Beckham is far from the world's best free-kick taker and as of recently has shown less ability," he writes. "Currently the best is Cristiano Ronaldo, or CR7/CR9, as he is known by his fan base. So I just ask that you support the true best man and not let your English bias get in the way because, quite frankly, Becks doesn't have much left in the tank." Bias towards the English, us?
Zach Clark from Virginia is another one who's questioning Becks' possible place on the plane. "If it came down to it," he writes, "do you really think Capello would take Becks over the likes of Ashley Young or Wright-Phillips if they are in form?"
The only chance Beckham has of making it to South Africa is if he's plying regularly in a top league in the months leading up to the World Cup. Capello has made that clear. His move to AC Milan is virtually sealed, and if he plays close to how he performed last season, we stand by our view that Beckham is worth having in the squad, as the attributes he brings to the squad are unique. Young and Wright-Phillips are great players, but if fit, England will already have two very similar players in the squad in Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon.
Craig Gottilla from Princeton is behind our selection of Becks: "I especially liked your insight on why one of the young midfielders will have to make way for Beckham," he writes. "If he can contribute with just one dead ball goal during the tournament, it will be worth it."
Send your thoughts on how the battle for the EPL title and the top four places is shaping up, and any other banter to the usual address firstname.lastname@example.org.