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.

i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower