Are England's Big Four in trouble?

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But "the romance of the cup" is a cliché for good reason, and Sunday provided one of the greatest upsets in years. Leeds United beating Manchester United at the turn of the century would have raised few eyebrows -- back then Leeds, league champion in 1992 and Champions League semifinalist in 2001, was in its prime.

Things are much different now at Elland Road. Following bankruptcy and relegation to the third tier of English football, no one gave Leeds a chance going into Sunday's match, even if the team was 15 games unbeaten and leading League One. But Leeds star man Jermaine Beckford scored his 20th goal of the season while Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen spurned golden opportunities to equalize, and Man. United exited the FA Cup in the third round (the stage in which the teams from the top two divisions join the competition) for the first time since 1984.

If would be naive to question if, based on that one result, United is a team on the wane. But this was certainly not its first mishap this season. The last time Man. Utd lost five of its first 20 Premier League games was in 2002-03. And despite the team's current position, just two points off the pace, it looks like a shadow of the team that won the last three EPL titles.

The warning signs were there when Barcelona scythed United apart in the Champions League final last year, and the squad hasn't been rebuilt sufficiently since then. The average age of its regular first team is now older than 30, and of the starters, only Rooney (24), Antonio Valencia (24) and Darren Fletcher (25) are in that all-important mid-20s group of players who have both experience and youthful energy to boot. Patrice Evra, Park Ji-Sung, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, John O'Shea, Owen Hargreaves, Dimitar Berbatov, WesBrown and Rio Ferdinand are all between 28 and 31, while Gary Neville (34), Paul Scholes (35), Ryan Giggs (36) and Edwin van der Sar (39) could star in a British remake of Golden Girls.

Debt levels at the club seemingly have resulted in Sir Alex Ferguson's war chest lacking the $131 million received for Cristiano Ronaldo, but the current state of his team is not simply down to having bought too few players. Berbatov's languid style hasn't suited United's directness and speed of movement, while Anderson and Nani don't come close to the heyday of Scholes and Giggs.

At the back, Jonny Evans still doesn't inspire confidence and looks to be a long-term reserve in the mold of Brown and O'Shea. Meanwhile, the likes of Danny Welbeck, Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan, Rafael, Fábio and Ritchie De Laet are no more than exciting prospects that should be sprinkled on a team of established stars, not playing en masse.

United's ability to bounce back from the Leeds defeat was set to be tested at Manchester City in their Carling Cup semifinal first leg this past Wednesday, but heavy snowfall and temperatures as low as 7 degrees put that plan on hold. And perhaps it was just as well. Ferguson's men would have been facing a City team that, under new manager Roberto Mancini, has three wins in three games without conceding a goal. It's the sort of test United usually relishes, and a City victory in the rescheduled game on Jan. 19 seemingly would reinforce our argument that United is on the wane.

Except it wouldn't. United is a top-class side with a world-class manager and several world-class players, who, on their day, can mesmerize. Our point is this: Just as when United flopped out of the Champions League in '05-06, we think it's time for the club to rebuild. Either of the Spanish giants likely would dispatch it in the Champions League, while being only two points from the EPL summit says more about Chelsea's inconsistency than United's form.

The other Carling Cup semi between Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers was also postponed due to the weather amid surprising rumors that a pack of dogs was readying itself to pull a sleigh containing Villa's lumbering target man, EmileHeskey, down the M40 motorway to South West London.

With Didier Drogba in the marginally warmer climes of Angola for the African Cup of Nations, Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti is in the market for a bustling, muscular target man who flops to the ground at the slightest gust of wind. That Heskey, a man with a return of only three goals in 20 games so far this season, is linked with Chelsea is an indicator that Ancelotti's squad isn't of the same standards of the past few seasons.

Unlike United, Chelsea hasn't recently lost any key players. But like United, Chelsea's first team is aging, with Ricardo Carvalho, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Nicolas Anelka and Drogba all on the wrong side of 30 (skipper John Terry is close, at 29). Meanwhile, Petr Cech, once arguably the world's best keeper, is in woeful form.

Looking down the table, Arsenal has a points tally close to what we expected. That its game in hand could take it above United and only a point behind Chelsea is predominantly a sign of United's and Chelsea's failings, not Arsenal's success. Credit is due to the Gunners, though, for winning five of their last six EPL games despite an injury list that has contained Robin van Persie, TomasRosicky, Gaël Clichy, Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner and captain Cesc Fàbregas.

While we don't see Arsenal hoisting the EPL trophy this season, Arsène Wenger's faith in his young squad could pay off next season, if it continues the upwards trajectory that, at present, contrasts with Chelsea's and Man. United's.

However, their key Christmas Day matchup with Aston Villa showed the Gunners are still overly reliant on their captain to turn or dictate a game. With the match still scoreless in the 57th minute, Wenger gambled by bringing in a half-fit Fàbregas off the bench. The Spaniard duly scored the game's only two goals before coming off injured 27 minutes later. Unsurprisingly, rumors of Fàbregas' exit to one of the Spanish giants continue to persist, with a swap deal involving Real Madrid's Argentine striker, Gonzalo Higuaín, as the latest tabloid offering.

Fàbregas' potential exit would be a huge blow to the club, but could be mitigated quickly by rapidly improving replacement Aaron Ramsey. The Welsh teenager has excelled in the Spaniard's absence, scoring standout goals in Arsenal's last two games. Wenger says Ramsey's development is "ahead of schedule" and ex-Arsenal legend Bob Wilson tips the 18-year-old as a future Arsenal captain.

On the Merseyside, Liverpool's dependence on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard already was evident last season. Persistent injuries to its two stars this season has led to the Reds' failure to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages, and currently puts them in seventh in the EPL. Failure to qualify for the Champions League next season would financially devastate the indebted club.

Liverpool's woes should provide stark warning to the other "Big Four" clubs that an increasing over-reliance on key players could threaten the recent dominance EPL clubs have enjoyed in the Champions League. That point is driven home even further when you consider that defending European champion Barcelona reinforced this past offseason with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Real Madrid's new Galácticos -- Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema -- make it an entirely different proposition from los Blancos of recent seasons.

Meanwhile, domestically, although a less imminent threat, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa are starting to challenge at the top. If City wins its game in hand, Mancini's men would jump to fourth place, and the club certainly has the financial muscle to buy the players in January to keep them there. A perhaps jaded Patrick Vieira has arrived at City from Inter Milan. But more interesting for the Citizens are the likely captures of promising Argentine left back Cristian Ansaldi and 20-year-old Danish center back Simon Kjaer. Mancini has stated his targets are a fourth-place finish this year and the title next season. He means it -- his job depends on coming at least close.

Last time around, we started the big countdown to June 12 when our boys take on the U.S.' finest. Inevitably, our jovial banter on what the Three Lions are going to do to the Yanks in Rustenburg led to a torrent of equally jestful e-mails from you. Here are a few of the best:

Carl Lindstrom predicts a repeat of recent World Cups where England often has managed to disappoint in at least one game, and suffered foot-related injuries: "England always has one game where they screw around, play poorly and come out with a result they don't expect," he writes. "In South Africa, that will be against the U.S. Rooney will get injured before the Cup -- broken foot. Suck, it Limey." Suck what, Carl? Rooney's foot? We're betting not even Colleen does that.

David Scott of Denver comments on the contrasting sides: "I figure the U.S. is at a place in its history where on any given day, it can beat any team in the world but also lose badly to any team in the world. Nothing really surprises me."

Meanwhile, John Leonardy of Philadelphia thinks the result is totally down to the U.S. team: "England and Fabio Capello will have no say in the result," he writes. "It is entirely up to Bob Bradley's team -- the fittest, most athletic national team."

Fair comment, but we're sure that Capello, one of the most experienced and decorated coaches, may have some influence on the result, John! He goes on to to make the same point as the previous letter around the two sides of the U.S. team: "If the U.S. squad that needed a 96th-minute Jonathan Bornstein header to square with Costa Rica takes the field in Rustenburg, Terry and the rest of the Lions should have an easy go at three points. But if the team who played miserly defense and picked wonderful moments to counterattack Spain last summer returns to the same field, England won't be able to get anything past Tim Howard."

Chip Updegrove of Cincinnati cuts to the chase: "While I normally respect the prose emanating from Castle Limey when it comes to the EPL, we're going to kick your ever-loving football arses from one side of South Africa to the other." While we're still sucking Rooney's foot, Chip?

Bob Perkins rightly points out which team is under most pressure to win: "How will England play in a World Cup outside of Europe, where traditionally, UEFA sides do not play well?" he asks. "And who faces more pressure in this match? England is expected to win, I expect them to win, but I can't help but wonder if they really will win."

Keep your banter and foot fetishes coming to