Can the empires really strike back?

Upstarts now face the acid test as United seek to raise their game for the more mundane
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Until a week or so ago, with well over a quarter of the season gone, the Premiership table made enjoyably abnormal reading. The aristocrats of Arsenal and Manchester United, neither of whom have finished outside the top three for almost a decade, were scrabbling round as nothing better than the fourth highest teams in London and Lancashire respectively. Supporters in those areas who have traditionally dwelt in the red shadows - Charlton and West Ham, Wigan and Manchester City - were suddenly blinking in the sunlight and admiring the view from the top of the tree.

Yet in the space of one weekend there was a sense of the old order being restored. After Arsenal brushed Sunderland aside last Saturday, United, revelling in the rare guise of under-dogs and nation's favourites, duly pegged back Chelsea with victory at Old Trafford, so that each team had briefly regained their accustomed seat in the top three.

Bolton then stole it with Monday night's narrow win over Tottenham; the Tottenham who were supposed to be effecting a changing of the guard in north London just a week earlier by beating Ars-enal, only to find their neighbours reluctant to be elbowed out of the sentry box. Instead, after a 1-1 draw in which each side dominated one half of the game, it was Spurs left out in the rain again.

Manchester City, meanwhile, slipped to a fourth defeat in seven games, the latest of them at Fulham; Charlton have managed one win in five and appear to be making their descent into the middle reaches rather earlier than normal. All in all, it was a Blue Monday for the New Order. Now the football world sits back and waits for Wigan's upstarts to follow them down the Premiership's slippery slope, the fixture computer having developed a sadistic streak in planning their programme for the coming month.

While Paul Jewell's braves must test themselves against Arsenal on Saturday, United go to Charlton, where they have never lost in the Premiership, confident of proving that they can raise their game for something more mundane than a meeting with the champions. Should the big boys prevail, the sense, more than ever, will be of things having returned to normal.

The only trouble with that is that normality has taken on an added dimension in the past 12 months. A year ago last weekend Chelsea established themselves at the head of the table, and have been there ever since. Labelled "boring" - as unwisely as they have been again this season - they were already in the middle of a run in which they scored four goals in a match five times in seven games. Just like last year, they have to visit Highbury in December, but unless the gap between the teams has been significantly narrowed by then, the outcome will be academic. For the key fact about English club football over the past year is that just as Chelsea approached their peak, Arsenal and United went into decline.

For all his protestations to the contrary, Arsène Wenger, having been 12 points behind Jose Mourinho at the end of last season, knew he would need considerable improvement to - and from - his Arsenal squad even before Chelsea spent small fortunes on players he could not compete for, such as Michael Essien, Asier Del Horno and Shaun Wright-Phillips, the first two of whom went straight into the first team and strengthened it further. "Chelsea pay 20 for what is worth 10," Wenger famously said, contributing another cutting to Mourinho's scrapbook.

True enough, and it also means they get players whom rivals like Arsenal and United coveted. Buying Alexander Hleb while selling Patrick Vieira and Edu meant Arsenal were not even as strong as last year, let alone capable of withstanding early injuries to players as crucial as Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry. Youngsters such as Cesc Fabregas and Matthieu Flamini, gifted as they are, were not going to come on quickly enough to make anything like the difference.

As for United, the single statistic of a piddling 58 goals last season showed how much needed to be done. Sir Alex Ferguson regarded such a figure as freakish, yet the current total (16 in 11 games) is a worse average than last year's. The gloom over Old Trafford has been lifted by just one of those 16, the header looped in by Darren Fletcher against Chelsea last Sunday afternoon, which led to praise as exaggerated as earlier criticism had been.

Like Arsenal, United are what they are - the second or third best team in the country, grateful that other supposed powers such as Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle and Aston Villa are waning equally badly. What's new? Nothing much. Which is why the country will be willing on the Athletics of Charlton and Wigan next Saturday.