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.