It took a disputed late goal, but the halfway stage of the Premier League programme was reached last Thursday night with the same old gang of four grasping the modern holy grail of English football, the Champions' League positions.
The goal was scored by Roque Santa Cruz of Blackburn, gifting sub-editors some Christmas headlines and denying Manchester City fourth place ahead of Liverpool. This afternoon at Eastlands, City have another chance to claim it by beating Rafa Benitez's team, who will still have a game in hand (at home to West Ham) afterwards. Everton and Aston Villa also remain in what is theoretically a chasing pack; Newcastle and Tottenham, other historically big clubs, have been disappointing; Portsmouth and Blackburn know that they are essentially smaller fry currentlyoverachieving.
In the past four seasons, only Everton have broken into the magic circle, which they immediately fell out of by losing a European qualifying round before the competition proper had begun; their manager, David Moyes, admitted here last week that without a new stadium they cannot hope to compete at the same level.
City have at least crossed that Rubicon, sacrificing beloved but run-down Maine Road for a cap-acity of 48,000 and executive boxes galore, thanks to the local council's generosity in donating the Commonwealth Games stadium. They also acquired real financial muscle from Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial exiled former prime minister of Thailand whose subsequent renewed popularity was reflected in victory for his party in last week's elections.
Such was the hurried nature of his takeover last summer and the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson as manager that there was an element of throwing together a squad from all over the world. Eriksson quickly blew 40 million on eight players, admitting he had not seen many of them perform, yet demonstrating a talent for putting together a team that many felt had been lost during his time with England.
To have spent most of the season so high in the table was hardly expected by City fans or anyone else after the tribulations of last season, when Stuart Pearce's side set a record by scoring only 10 goals at home (seven of them in three matches). The transformation has been remarkable: without exactly becoming prolific, City won every home League game until Santa Cruz crept down their chimney late on Thursday to bring a 2-2 draw.
"We are disappointed to have conceded two goals at set-pieces," Eriksson said afterwards. "We have to work on that." Anyone who saw the dreadful defensive display in a 6-0 defeat at Chelsea in October would have pinpointed that area of weakness but, even so, no other away game has been lost by more than one goal. Vedran Corluka, one of the expensive summer signings, who was appalling as a left-back at Stamford Bridge, has even been converted on Thursday's evidence into a much more accomplished defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system that Eriksson, the old 4-4-2 man, now seems to favour.
Dietmar Hamann may well return as one of the holding midfielders against his former club today, as Eriksson accepts the need for rotating players during his first direct experience of what is laughably called the "holiday" period. Although acknowledging how much British supporters love their football at this time of year, the City manager is as adamant as ever that there would be benefits in having a break during January.
"If you look at statistics done by Fifa doctors, the injury risk from February until the end of the season is much bigger here than in any other European country. I convinced the FA, but not the Premier League."
In the meantime there will be another new experience, the transfer window, which Eriksson has already opened in signing the Mexican international Nery Castillo, who could end up replacing the disaffected Rolando Bianchi. "He can play striker, second striker, on the left or on the right," the manager said. "He has good technique, a lot of pace and an eye for goal."
According to Eriksson, more signings can be expected next month, with Shinawatra apparently delighted by the return on his investment so far: "He has big, big ambitions for Manchester City and during this season his appetite has become bigger and bigger. He wants to be a big club. It's a fantastic project."
And breaking into that top four? "It would be as big as anything I've been involved in. The new owner wants to challenge for that but it's difficult."
For Benitez, long past the stage of having excitable new owners throwing their money around, the challenge is persuading them that he requires still more funds. Much-publicised discussions with Liverpool's American sugar daddies a fortnight ago apparently cleared the air, though it seems unlikely that the Spaniard will be allowed to buy much more in this window than the centre-half he needs. "January is very difficult," he said on Friday. "It's hard to find fantastic players at the right price because normally the good players are involved in the title or trophies. But in summer we have a good plan and can do some good business. The problem is to organise everything. I am sure it won't be a problem in the future."
No problems either with Messrs Hicks and Gillett? "The first meeting with the Americans was about plans, keeping players and bringing new players in. And we are moving in the same direction. I think there was clearly a misunderstanding, but after the meeting everything is in place. We improved communications. That was one of the conclusions of the meeting."
Another was surely that a place among England's leading quartet is the minimum requirement. Having failed to beat Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United in four meetings this season, Liverpool cannot afford to allow Manchester City to steal their place in the sun today.Reuse content