Guardians of the Bastille must be forced to part with the keys

By James Lawton
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The Independent Online

The talk is of a real Premiership, a real competition, of perhaps a French revolution with Gérard Houllier and Arsène Wenger bringing down Old Trafford, the hated Bastille of English football society. Of David O'Leary whipping on his boyos, and perhaps even Emmanuel Petit returning with a touch of iron for the barrack square of foreign legionnaires at the Sidi-bel-Abbes of the King's Road.

But you have to wonder where the fantasies will end – and when all the cascades of television cash which have poured into this most self-regarding of leagues will be converted into the hard currency of a genuine scrap.

Talk is cheap and much of it might have been provoked by a round of Flaming Ferraris, the tipple of the City's young gods of the universe revving up to the edge of the cliff. The Premiership should guard against a similar fall. Of course there will be no shortage of spectacle or talent to admire, and at places like Middlesbrough and Fulham any lack of realism about championship pretensions will surely be softened by, respectively, the diamond hard talent of Alen Boksic and the burgeoning talent of Louis Saha. But the sideshows will not matter if the season is, once again, denied the oxygen of challenge and intrigue. Manchester United have been allowed to turn the Premiership into a ritual and ritual is for Sunday morning not Saturday afternoon.

The league is many things but it is not, as one national newspaper claimed this week, "the greatest league in the world's greatest sport", and we should remember this if we want to avoid too deep a disappointment in the next nine months. The problem is a terrible imbalance of strength and winning instinct, one which cannot be wiped away by small victories. United ripped away all challengers hard and early last season, and they walked home. It is a reality that high hopes and fancy talk cannot dispel.

One antidote to the heaviest of the euphoria about new levels of competition is a phone call to the bookmakers, who do not suspect heavily that the guardians of the Bastille are about to hand over the keys. United are 8-11. Arsenal and Liverpool are 9-2, Leeds are 8-1, Chelsea tens, and if you really want to walk on the wild side you can have Spurs at 50-1. Bolton Wanderers are 1,500-1. These are not the odds of a league of world supremacy, of wafer thin margins, but the formalities of a canter.

In Italy Juventus are 2-1, Roma 9-4 and Milan and Lazio are 100-30. In Italy they anticipate a race and even in Spain, where Real Madrid have united Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, Barcelona's chances are rated two full points better than those of Liverpool or Arsenal. The implication for the Premiership is huge and pressing. It does not have many more opportunities to make a genuine league of itself.

Yes, it has the glamour of big names and if in the past some of them have been more than a little shop soiled, United's investment of £47 million in Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy is unquestionably gilt-edged. But in the last three years, as United's grip has tightened so remorselessly, the Premiership has lost an edge which in America, the world's most sensitive sports market, is preserved by the very legislation of the ultimately television-friendly National Football League. Transfers are controlled in a system which would have Veron playing not for United but for Bolton. The Americans realise, as of course do the Italians and the Spaniards and the Germans, current holders of the European Cup, that a league without true competition is a body without a heart.

It is maybe not insignificant that after United conquered Europe and collected the treble in 1999, Wenger, winner of the double, still believed that his Arsenal could chase down and master United. No doubt the United challenge in Europe petered out partly because of the failure of the board to make the investment obligatory for all serious players at the top of the European game. But who could dispute the contributory factor of the team's lack of a real challenge at home? United, critically, lost the habit of fighting to win. Victory was their gift, their right, and no matter how many times Roy Keane shook his fist at the heavens, he couldn't dislodge that idea. Bayern Munich beat a team made soft not by their nature but their circumstances.

Liverpool's circumstances offer the best hope that a challenger will indeed leap from the pack. The great demand on them is belief in their own capacity to go the long course, to match United every stride of the way. They have proved themselves able, and crucially fortunate, sprinters with three Cup victories, and with Michael Owen in such electrifying form they can be expected to explode from the blocks. But can they hold it, can they keep their feet and their heads on a bad day at Leicester or Sunderland as well as they have done in their last three meetings with United? It is a question around which the entire season may well hang.

Houllier is a bit like a jockey keeping his horse covered in a big race, but there is a point when the gallop has to be true and sustained. Last Sunday's eruption of frustration by Robbie Fowler, when he was left out of the Charity Shield line-up, was not the happiest augury. Fowler is a mood player of the highest class, but for him rotation – Houllier's cornerstone of strategy – appears to be psychological death. It's a time bomb planted at the heart of Liverpool's sense of team and well being, and Houllier knows well enough that its dismantling could be the key to everything.

O'Leary, Wenger and Chelsea's Claudio Ranieri have the broader task of re-animating their teams after a season which ultimately yielded only anti-climax. O'Leary knows that his players can no longer hide behind the veil of potential. They have been saluted for their promise, now they must earn the respect which comes with achievement. Alan Smith, one of the most promising of their young players, ended his season in disgrace in Valencia, sent off for an adolescent bout of pique. His particular requirement is to grow up. It is vital that it happens this season. Potential, like grapes, can easily die on the vine.

Ranieri must communicate the aura of command and a unity of purpose, a process which will no doubt be enhanced by Dennis Wise's removal to Leicester, where he will presumably be discouraged from opening up a direct line to the chairman. Wenger must re-communicate the above, which may be easier said than done after Patrick Vieira's summer of smouldering insurrection.

Vieira is no doubt worth some considerable trouble. His prevarications of recent months recalled some of the worst of the Nicolas Anelka episode, but like his ingrate compatriot before him, Vieira's importance to the Arsenal cause is hard to overestimate, a fact underlined by Ferguson's dangerous pursuit of his signature. If Vieira had gone to Old Trafford, the United manager might have been tempted to tell the rest of the Premiership to play amongst themselves.

The worry must be that his acquisition of Veron may tempt him to say it anyway, and perhaps by as early as Christmas. If it happens, the Premiership will need more than a Flaming Ferrari.