The Reds: Going somewhere fast

In the race to catch up with Chelsea, Liverpool have edged ahead of the rest of the chasing pack
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The Independent Football

Like refugees from some strange cult that made us believe in all sorts of nonsense, the followers of English football emerge blinking into the light of August. The memories are hazy and haphazard: a town called Baden-Baden? The WAGs? Some crazy notion that England could win a World Cup? Rarely has the start of another Premiership season - and all the grudges, rancour and partisan fervour that it brings - actually felt like a dose of reality.

For some fans of English football, all that matters is the life of their club side. For others, the World Cup finals tell us about the state of our national game and for those the start of another four-year cycle is to be approached with some weariness. In the four World Cup finals since that demanding infant, the Premiership, was born in 1992, the England team have made the quarter-finals of the World Cup finals twice, the first knock-out round once and, in 1994, failed to qualify altogether.

The Premiership is now in its teenage years, but its failure to transform the England team's fortunes does not appear to have diminished our appetite for a game that, while it may not quite be the envy of the world, does not suffer from underexposure. Last season 12,874,135 supporters attended the 380 games in the Premiership season. And many of them were not transported, as Sky Sports' trailers might have us believe, through shiny cityscapes in Ford people carriers. They were ordinary people coughing up for expensive tickets and taking fans' coaches through the night back from places like the JJB Stadium, the Riverside and Fratton Park.

Anyone who takes part in that weekend migration of football fans across the motorways and through the service stations of England knows that the game has an unshakeable core of supporters. Yet in Cardiff on Sunday, not even the arrival of Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack could fill the Chelsea seats. But at the other end the Liverpool fans were in a very different mood: some actually cavorted on the pitch at Peter Crouch's winner. You had to wonder what kind of person would risk a steward's half nelson - and arrest - to celebrate winning the Community Shield?

In the light of those scenes, Liverpool seem like the logical place to start in assessing the season. They were in the grip of an unprecedented sense of optimism even before Sunday's victory, an optimism peculiar for a club two of whose major summer signings are more accustomed to being arrested than the likely lads who jumped over the advertising hoardings at the Millennium Stadium. Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Pennant are not the obvious choices for a manager like Rafael Benitez - though Dirk Kuyt is - but it is that which makes them so appealing. After two seasons in the job, Benitez seems to have adapted to the Premiership sufficiently to know a British bargain now as well as a Spanish one.

Both have the personalities that can potentially cause problems, but neither has ever played consistently at a club as big, as stable or as successful as Liverpool. Benitez may previously have ignored the imperative of buying players of pace but in those two, and the Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez, he has changed that and, under his leadership, progress seems smooth.

At Manchester United that old godfather of English football ploughs on. There was a time when it was said that Sir Alex Ferguson would not survive two consecutive seasons without the Premiership title, but it has been three now and still he fights on. In November he will mark 20 years in charge of United, a man who has withstood so many crises that turned into title- winning seasons, so many doom-laden prophecies that proved false that he regards himself as impervious. He turns 64 on New Years' Eve and all that is guaranteed about his eventual departure is that it will be someone else's idea.

The £18.6m signing of Michael Carrick was a ludicrous chase for United that ended with an embarrassing price for a player who, at best, is only half of a replacement for Roy Keane. With the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, United are still driven by the same old faces: Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and even old Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The handover of power to the generation of John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher never happened. The ageing of their natural leaders is their greatest frailty.

It angers Ferguson that Arsenal are granted so many seasons of transition while United's are labelled crisis, but there is no doubt that Arsène Wenger's club provide the Premiership with something different. United's identity is predicated on being the biggest and the most powerful; Arsenal's is more subtle. Unlike the other big three, they can exist on something less than being all-conquering, on a virtuoso style of football led by Thierry Henry that has recently proved unsustainable over a season. Buying Tomas Rosicky will not win them the Premiership, but the smart money says that on the days that Arsenal click he will pass with the best of them.

The greatest threat to Chelsea's pre-eminence? Probably Chelsea themselves and their never-ending powers of acquisition. The Community Shield gave us the basis of two debates that could last all season. Can Michael Ballack really play with Frank Lampard? And is there a place for Shevchenko and Didier Drogba in the same team? Jose Mourinho could be left trying to force famous names into positions that don't suit with team-mates who don't complement them. For those still recovering from Germany 2006, it may well provoke flashbacks to Eriksson's darkest hours.

Chelsea, however, are the only Premiership big hitter buying at the top of the European market. The great Juventus fire sale? That seemed to benefit only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Internazionale. The battle for Fernando Torres' signature? He decided to stay at Atletico Madrid. Ballack and Shevchenko are the only two Premiership players who stirred interest from foreign Champions' League clubs; certainly none of them were slapping down bids for Bellamy or Carrick.

As for the best of the rest, the failure of Tottenham to sign Damien Duff still feels like it could rebound on their season. With Duff on the left, Aaron Lennon on the right and Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane up front, they would have had an attack comparable with all but Chelsea. They have proved themselves canny negotiators in the price for Carrick, but not when it came to pushing the boat out on Duff's wages. Didier Zokora is a good signing, tied up before his impressive performance at the World Cup finals; Wenger would have liked their new full-back Benoît Assou-Ekotto; and Dimitar Berbatov's £10.9m fee showed they have ambition. Buying Duff would have put it beyond doubt.

At Aston Villa, Martin O'Neill has one of those old-fashioned football challenges. One football man's brain against the odds and no more than modest financial support, it seems, from the new owner. Walking up to Villa Park on match day in recent years, the place has seemed to embody mediocrity, a pointless habit the local population felt they could not break. Then suddenly O'Neill arrived and Villa supporters thronged the car park to meet him. A part of you felt sorry for Doug Ellis who, after enduring managers like John Gregory and David O'Leary, will not be there to see the good one take the job.

O'Neill raises the bar for managers in that part of the division. Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, David Moyes and Mark Hughes are all scrapping for survival their way. Different aspects of their summers are impressive. With Andy Johnson and James Beattie, Moyes has two England internationals in his forward line. Pardew has kept Marlon Harewood and Dean Ashton - now injured - and added Carlton Cole too. And Hughes has bought one of the best strikers in last season's lower-Premiership in Jason Roberts.

It is five years since Allardyce's newly promoted Bolton beat Leicester 5-0 on the first day of the season to signal the beginning of the end for Peter Taylor and the Bolton manager's methods of survival are being squeezed ever more. He has brought in just three players so far this summer and more clubs are adopting his short-term contract approach.

Of the three new teams in the Premiership, Sheffield United and Watford have added significantly to their squad from the best players in the Championship and the outcasts from the tail-end of the Premiership.

It is a strategy that Wigan made work last season with an imaginative manager and a lot of early momentum. Neil Warnock and Aidy Boothroyd have to generate that against all the odds.

Reading have bought fewer players and look even less qualified to stay up. Manchester City and Fulham are other potential strugglers, so too Charlton Athletic. While Wigan's summer signings should be enough to keep them afloat, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth should survive without discomfort. Which just leaves Newcastle United.

Following the World Cup around Germany this summer, you were struck by how, on a wider scale, the England team are the Newcastle of international football. They both have a huge and loyal fan base, ludicrously high expectations, iconic players and no success for generations - as well as a sense in both camps that Michael Owen is not the answer to their goalscoring problems. Glenn Roeder is a vastly underrated manager, and a great coach, who deserves to do well but has been left with too few fit strikers.

Being outraged over opposition players' diving, booing Cristiano Ronaldo and getting confused - then angry - over a new directive to linesmen to delay flagging for offside decisions: these are the things that will absorb English football supporters over the next 10 months.

Then follows England's away Euro 2008 qualifier against Estonia on 6 June, which will mark one year and one day since Eriksson's fateful mission flew out to Germany and by then another Premiership season should have convinced some of us that England are ready to conquer the world - or Europe at least - once again.

Our experts' predictions: Who will do what at the top and the bottom

James Lawton Chief Sports Writer

Premiership

1 Liverpool (by 2pts)

2 Chelsea

3 Manchester Utd

4 Arsenal

Relegated: Reading, Watford, Sheffield Utd

FA Cup: Aston Villa

Champions' League: Barcelona

Sam Wallace Football Correspondent

Premiership

1 Chelsea (by 5pts)

2 Liverpool

3 Man Utd

4 Arsenal

Relegated: Charlton, Sheffield Utd, Reading

FA Cup: Arsenal

Champions' League: Real Madrid

Glenn Moore Football Editor

Premiership

1 Chelsea (by 5pts)

2 Liverpool

3 Manchester Utd

4 Arsenal

Relegated: Reading, Fulham, Watford

FA Cup: Everton

Champions' League: Real Madrid

Jason Burt Football writer

Premiership

1 Liverpool (by 2pts)

2 Chelsea

3 Manchester Utd

4 Arsenal

Relegated: Middlesbrough, Sheffield Utd, Charlton.

FA Cup: Manchester Utd

Champions' League: Barcelona

Andy Hunter Football writer

Premiership

1 Chelsea (by 2pts)

2 Liverpool

3 Manchester Utd

4 Arsenal

Relegated: Portsmouth, Sheffield Utd, Reading

FA Cup: Blackburn Rovers

Champions' League: Milan

Phil Shaw Football writer

Premiership

1 Chelsea (by 4pts)

2 Liverpool

3 Arsenal

4 Manchester Utd

Relegated: Sheffield Utd, Fulham, Watford

FA Cup: Manchester Utd

Champions' League: Barcelona

The numbers game: Facts and figures from the history of the Premiership

TOP SCORERS 2005-06

27 Thierry Henry (Arsenal)

21 Ruud van Nistelrooy (*Man United)

18 Darren Bent (Charlton)

16 Robbie Keane (Tottenham), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Wayne Rooney (Man United)

14 Marlon Harewood (West Ham)

13 Aiyegbeni Yakubu (Middlesbrough), Craig Bellamy (*Blackburn)

12 Henri Camara (Wigan), Didier Drogba (Chelsea)

* since transferred

ALL-TIME TOP SCORERS (1992-2006)

1 Alan Shearer 260

2 *Andy Cole 185

3 *Thierry Henry 164

4 *Robbie Fowler 159

5 Les Ferdinand 149

6 *Teddy Sheringham 145

7 *Jimmy F Hasselbaink 125

8 *Michael Owen 125

9 Dwight Yorke 122

10 Ian Wright 113

* current Premiership players

ALL-TIME TOP 10 PREMIERSHIP TABLE

1 Man United (P544, Pts 1143)

2 Arsenal (544, 1013)

3 Liverpool (544, 931)

4 Chelsea (544, 930)

5 Newcastle (502, 786)

6 Aston Villa (544, 767)

7 Tottenham (544, 728)

8 Blackburn (468, 695)

9 Leeds (468, 692)

10 Everton (544, 677)

ALL-TIME APPEARANCES

1 Gary Speed 483

2 Alan Shearer 441

3 David James 438

4 Ryan Giggs 434

5 Gareth Southgate 426

6 Teddy Sheringham 401

7 Sol Campbell 390

8 Andy Cole 389

9 Ray Parlour 378

10 Nigel Martyn 372

ALL-TIME LEADING NATIONALITIES

English 1,473 players, Scottish 148, French 147, Welsh 77, Rep of Ireland 66, Dutch 65, Northern Irish 59, Australian 51, Danish 50

PREMIERSHIP'S WINNING MANAGERS

7 Alex Ferguson (Man Utd)

3 Arsene Wenger (Arsenal)

2 Jose Mourinho (Chelsea)

1 Kenny Dalglish (Blackburn)

CURRENT ENGLISH MANAGERS 10

ENGLISH MANAGERS IN 1992-93 16

CURRENT NON-BRITISH MANAGERS 4

FOREIGN MANAGERS IN 1992-93 0

MOST EXPENSIVE SEASON TICKET (06-07)

Arsenal £1,825

CHEAPEST SEASON TICKET (06-07)

Blackburn Rovers £270

Compiled by Glenn Moore

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