The big two can embarrass the richest

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Tongue's Predictions;
Champions: Manchester United;
Runners-up: Arsenal;
Third: Chelsea;
Fourth: Liverpool;
Relegated: Leicester City, Bolton, Wolves;
FA Cup winners: Newcastle United;
Carling Cup winners: Tottenham Hotspur;
Premiership top scorer: Ruud van Nistelrooy;
Champions' League winners: Real Madrid

Six days to go until Premiership football returns, and the inside of the crystal ball looks rather dispiritingly familiar. When the competition was born in 1992, the bookmakers' four most fancied teams were Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Leeds. Substitute the newly enriched Chelsea for financially challenged Leeds this week, add Newcastle United as the outsiders of five, and Honest Joe Ladbroke will not argue with you. The most startling aspect of bookies' lists is the gap between that quintet of challengers for four Champions' League places, and what comes next: anyone for Everton at 125-1? No thanks.

What domestic football needs, even more than an assault on the Big Five, is a serious threat to the Arsenal-United duopoly, which is one reason to welcome Mr Roman Abramovich to the ranks of the butchers, Bateses, candlestick-makers and con-men who have traditionally run British football clubs. Only once in six seasons have the pride of London and Manchester been split as the Premiership's leading pair, when Liverpool heralded a false dawn by edging out United as runners-up two years ago.

Last season the familiar, pleasingly contrasting figures of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger held the top two positions from New Year's Day until the end of the campaign, during which period Arsenal lost only two games and United none at all, to earn their eighth title out of 11 - embarrassing statistics for what is supposed to be the most competitive league in the world. Wenger's small but deserved consolation was to win comfortably at Old Trafford in the FA Cup and go on to take the trophy at the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, where the two teams will therefore engage this afternoon for the Community Shield.

This unhealthy dominance is reflected more than ever these days in financial terms. Last season the two clubs earned more than £50m each from television and merit payments alone in the main competitions, with only Liverpool and Newcastle of their rivals making more than £30m, and a club like Bolton, supposedly competing in the same league, receiving £18m. Yet the balance has been redressed a little by Arsenal's commitment to a £400m stadium, leaving Wenger with only a fraction of the year's income to spend on winning back the championship. He has bought just one senior player, in effect doing no more than replacing David Seaman.

United, however frustrating their summer, look well placed in comparison. With money to burn from the David Beckham transfer, they hung on too long for Ronaldinho, ignoring Harry Kewell and Damien Duff in the process, and should also have gone in much earlier for Jermain Defoe, at a time when West Ham were more financially vulnerable. Then Ferguson was left looking silly over the transfer of Juan Sebastian Veron ("People keep saying he is going. Unless he is going to be whisked from right under my nose they are wrong" - New York, 1 August.) But the manager is perfectly happy with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Beckham's replacement on the right, and delighted to have secured Eric Djemba- Djemba as Roy Keane's long-term replacement, with the Brazilian Kleberson lined up as another central midfielder. Much is expected before long of two wide midfield players, Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson. The worry would be an injury to Ruud van Nistelrooy.

"There is a continuity there and they all understand each other's play, they have been with each other for years, and I could leave the players who have come in until some other time. That's probably what I will do [at Cardiff]," Ferguson said of this afternoon's meeting. "For the last decade the championship has really been a battle between ourselves and Arsenal and they have every chance this year, like four other teams. We and Arsenal are the ones with experience but you just wonder how far Chelsea are going to go."

Arsenal's French warriors are not all match-fit yet, so little should be read into a possibly soporific game this afternoon, but Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell have looked increasingly confident with each pre-season game after the injuries that Wenger believes cost them the title. For reinforcement and refreshment, he intends turning to younger players like the gifted Jermaine Pennant, who marked his full Premiership debut in May with a hat-trick by half-time, and Jérémie Aliadière.

Last season Arsenal were the Premiership's highest scorers by a distance, their problems coming whenever Pascal Cygan stood in for Campbell or Martin Keown in defence, which is the area Wenger has been unable to address. "Defensively we were bad as a team," he admits. "But we have got enough to win the title and we have quality youngsters. We're really hungry. I'm very determined because I want to win the championship. And the Champions' League is an historical target for us."

What Arsenal and United both have over New Chelsea are settled squads and the experience of players and management in coping with the debilitating effect of combining Champions' League football with domestic encounters. Last time Chelsea played at the highest level, under Gianluca Vialli, they were notorious for returning with a fine result from Milan or Rome, and immediately losing at somewhere like Watford. Now, just as Claudio Ranieri was losing his reputation as an inveterate tinkerer, he must suddenly decide how and when to integrate half a dozen new players. Can Joe Cole and Veron really play in the same team? Who will win the ball for them? It promises to be fun to watch.

Newcastle will again enjoy the Champions' League and if they do not progress to the knockout stage after Christmas should be strong contenders for the FA Cup. Liverpool must take part in the bloated Uefa Cup, a penalty for Gérard Houllier squandering £19m last summer on El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou. The Frenchman has at last realised that the future starts today and that "we need talent that can go straight into the first team". Harry Kewell and Steve Finnan fit that bill rather better than the above trio and Djimi Traoré. Fourth place sounds about right.

As often happens, all three arrivals from the Nationwide League are among those fancied for relegation. Portsmouth have the best chance of surviving, with Teddy Sheringham and Patrik Berger good buys; Leicester have matched them in numbers of signings though not quality, and will hope to escape with vigorous, direct football; the play-off winners Wolves have had a notably poor pre-season and have not strengthened impressively. Bolton, saved last time by their late victory over West Ham, continue to rely on short-term loans and imports, and Fulham are a catastrophe waiting to happen.

The usual suspects, then, at the top and the bottom; though even The Usual Suspects has a twist in the tail.

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