The English football season is upon us again, with the 20 Premier League clubs embarking this weekend on a 38-game competition that is considerably less open than the Ashes, in the sense that 50 per cent of the teams competing for the Ashes, with four-fifths of the contest behind them, can still win.
It is probably safe to say that once four-fifths of the Premier League season has passed, around the middle of March, the title will be beyond the reach of 90 per cent of those 20 teams. If it's only 80 per cent, with four teams still in the hunt, 2009-10 will count as an unusually exciting season.
Even in those circumstances, however, those four teams will almost certainly be Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, the self-perpetuating elite who qualify every year for the massively lucrative Champions League, enabling them to buy the world's best players. This in turn ensures a Champions League berth the following season, a manifestly warped system in which the men who run football have a vested and sometimes venal interest.
Still, there are two ingredients which make the forthcoming Premier League campaign more interesting than it has been for some time. One is next summer's World Cup, the first to be held in Africa, in which the season's best English performers will participate. Increasingly, international football is a refreshing antidote to the game in Europe's top leagues, its teams determined by the accident of birth rather than the flourishing of a chequebook. And yet it is a chequebook, that of the preposterously rich Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which provides this season's other intriguing ingredient.
Sheikh Mansour owns the Abu Dhabi Group for Development and Investment, whose takeover of Manchester City almost a year ago has turned the club, hitherto not even the richest club in Manchester, into the richest club in the world. City's manager Mark Hughes, whose most notable achievement in club management had been making ends meet at Blackburn Rovers, thus finds himself, like the hero of Brewster's Millions, positively obliged to spend fortunes.
To last September's £32.5m purchase of Robinho, he has this summer added a string of other world-class players, spending almost £100m in the process. And as well as inflated transfer fees, Hughes can also offer extravagant wages. The defender Joleon Lescott was happily ensconced at Everton until he heard that his £2m salary would be doubled at the other end of the East Lancs Road. He has therefore asked to leave, but the Everton manager David Moyes doesn't want him to go. Moyes might as well bang his head repeatedly against the walls of Fort Knox. Not everyone has yielded to the City billions, principally the brilliant Brazilian Kaka, who chose to join Real Madrid, but sooner or later Hughes will get his man.
All this is discombobulating even for City fans, reared on a diet of disappointment. For the rest of us it is at the same time hugely dispiriting and rather uplifting. At least we have spent a summer with United and Chelsea outflexed in terms of financial muscle. But as I mine what remains of my faith in football, I have to cling to the belief that City fans will be disappointed yet again. The best teams grow organically. Expensive cosmetic surgery is not what gave the Beautiful Game its looks.