Scolari has the means and men to foil Ferguson

It's depressing that clubs cannot join the magic circle but it will be fascinating to see if Chelsea can regain the title. By Steve Tongue

As the Premier League gears up for its 17th season, it is an unfortunate truth that the familiar three categories of competing clubs are more clearly defined than ever. The top four have again pulled further away from the rest, while the middle group can only dream of the Champions' League but still possess sufficient resources to avoid becoming entangled with a similar-sized crop who will spend the whole campaign looking behind them and crossing off points until something close to 38 are on the board.

Predicting who will finish where within the three mini-leagues is a hazardous business when three long weeks of transfer dealing remain (as 31 August is a Sunday this year, the world-wide window will not officially be banged shut until the following day). Should Manchester United and Liverpool finally secure Dimitar Berbatov and Gareth Barry respectively, their prospects would be improved almost as much as those of the selling clubs, Spurs and Aston Villa, would be diminished. Even so, short of, say, Steve Bruce persuading Robinho, Kaka and Iker Casillas that Wigan Athletic are the club they always wanted to play for, it is difficult to imagine any serious movement between our three leagues within a league.

Any football follower unable to name the quartet expected to occupy the first four places for the fourth season running has not been paying attention for some time. Last season Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool finished 11 points clear of the rest. The previous year it was eight points, the year before that a mere two, and this time the margin logically should only increase again for reasons of both finance and football; self-perpetuating participation in the Champions' League brings an extra £20 million or so everyyear to each of the clubs and persuades a Robbie Keane or a Barry that this magic circle is where they want to be.

If there is to be any change, it may well be that Chelsea overhaul United, and Liverpool do the same to Arsenal. Were Luiz Felipe Scolari to be subject to the same financial constraints as Jose Mourinho during his last year the picture would be different, but Roman Abramovich has apparently changed tack again, and instead of Steve Sidwell from Reading, this summer's addition to an already formidable midfield is the rather more impressive Deco from Barcelona. The hiring of a proven world-class coach as successor to Avram Grant appears to have persuaded Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba to stick around for another year and conse-quently Chelsea, who during the Champions' League final in Moscow looked as good a team as their rivals, are capable of taking the title back from them, with or without Robinho.

Ferguson's men will not surrender it willingly. Yet having finally won more European Cups than Nottingham Forest's two, they are now desperate to catch up with the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich (four each) and, of course, Liverpool (five), which may prove a greater motivation when the chips are down than another Premier League hat-trick. Spared major injuries for the past two seasons, they are also suffering early this time, with their two most important attacking players, Wayne Rooney and a disaffected Cristiano Ronaldo, already stricken.

Arsenal illustrated last season how the loss of key players can deflate belief as well as performance. Five points clear at the top in mid-February, they fell apart from the moment Eduardo da Silva suffered his ghastly injury at Birmingham. He will not return until Christmas, Tomas Rosicky is out until next month at the earliest, and Arsène Wenger has lost more from his midfield this summer than he has gained. So Liverpool, with Keane a fine foil to European champion Fernando Torres after the latter's astonishingfirst season (33 goals), can nail down third place and continue narrowing the gap on United.

Arsenal will come again, when their youngsters are more mature. In the meantime, they should not need to worry about the so-called challengers below them, who have achieved the difficult feat of looking weaker now than they were even three months ago. Everton (fifth) have endured a wretched summer and like Aston Villa (sixth) are desperate to make some late signings – at least Villa have the funds to do so and may therefore progress. Blackburn (seventh) have lost their manager, Mark Hughes, to Manchester City, as well as David Bentley to Tottenham, and although many will wish Paul Ince well as he carries the torch for black managers, Rovers cannot expect to match last season's overachievement.

Those in the middle eight with slightly more cause for optimism are: West Ham, solid all last season despite dreadful injury problems; Spurs, if they tighten up in defence and Luka Modric settles; Portsmouth, with Peter Crouch alongside Jermain Defoe; and Newcastle, who showed belated signs of improvement in the spring. But five of that group will also find their lives complicated, and their League ambitions hindered, by the absurdly protracted Uefa Cup.

As depressing as the predictability of the top four is the certainty that the same old teams will be floundering at the bottom, struggling to reach a point per game or even win an away match. Sunderland and Wigan only just reached that modest average last season; Fulham and Bolton failed yet survived. Anyone of a superstitious bent on Teesside should also note that the team finishing 13th, as Middlesbrough did, often suffer a sharp fall. Fortunately for all that group, two of the promoted clubs frequently return whence they came; an outcome surely awaiting Stoke and Hull. West Bromwich, under the lugubrious Tony Mowbray, may just have the quality to finish ahead of that pair and one other – Bolton perhaps, whose home game with Stoke on Saturday, together with Hull's against Fulham, must constitute the earliest relegation six-pointers of all time.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before