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Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Heavyweights poised to dominate again


LONDON — Predicting the top four clubs at the end of the 2008-09 Premier League season is relatively easy.

Christopher Davies

Guessing the order in which they will finish is a different matter.

The English quadopoly of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool over the rest is illustrated by these statistics. They have been the top four for the past three years. And since 1995, when Blackburn was the champion, United has finished first on eight occasions, Arsenal three times and Chelsea twice.

Liverpool has not been below the top five since 1999.

We are talking domination here.

Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan said the supremacy of the Big Four was in danger of making the Premier League "one of the most boring leagues in the world."

I disagree.

The super league within a league makes for a fascinating four-way heavyweight contest which was not decided until the last game of last season when United edged Chelsea, and Keegan should know how the Merseysiders ruled the roost in the 1970s when he was a Red.

Keegan helped Liverpool win the old First Division in 1972-73, 1975-76 and 1976-77, plus one F.A. Cup, one European Cup and one UEFA Cup.

Was that boring?

The expected arrival of Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham would give United, the best team in Europe, even more attacking options. Opponents would have to contend with Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, plus players such as Nani and Anderson who will be even stronger in a second season in English football.

The defense, led by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, conceded just 21 goals last time around and the return of Gary Neville after a long-term injury adds more experience to a Fort Knox unit.

Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant Carlos Queiroz has left to become Portugal coach following Luiz Felipe Scolari's defection to Chelsea, while Ronaldo's public love affair with Real Madrid ended with the winger eating humble pie and agreeing to stay (not that he had any option, as United was vehement that he would not be sold).

Ronaldo's ankle injury will sideline him until October. United fans have been less than impressed with his behavior this summer, but goals and silverware have proved great healers — when Steven Gerrard was on the verge of joining Chelsea four years ago they were burning effigies of him in Liverpool.

Despite the initial absence of Ronaldo it can be said with confidence that the team that finishes above United will be champions.

The best bet to do this — again — is Chelsea, which has added Barcelona's Deco and Jose Bosingwa of FC Porto to its squad, but most significantly Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba remain.

How Scolari will keep his players happy remains to be seen — in midfield he must choose four or perhaps five from Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi, Deco, Lampard, Joe Cole, Florent Malouda, Salomon Kalou and Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Arsenal will once again probably play the best football, but a fourth trophy-less season will not be accepted even by Gunners supporters who love Arsene Wenger's beautiful game.

Midfielder Samir Nasri has arrived from Marseille but Arsenal's squad lacks the depth of United's and Chelsea's.

Liverpool has waited 18 years for another English crown and has brought in Robbie Keane from Spurs to partner the impressive Fernando Torres.

American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett rocked the Anfield boat last season and have started where they left off. They told manager Rafa Benitez they did not think Aston Villa's Gareth Barry was worth £18 million — one wonders how the Americans would feel if Benitez told them how to run their businesses.

Of the chasing pack, Tottenham, despite the loss of Keane and probably Berbatov, and Villa seem the best bets to challenge the super league's supremacy.

Spurs finished 11th last season and have spent £45 million this summer. Crucially, manager Juande Ramos seems to have invested wisely — Luka Modric (Dinamo Zagreb), Giovani dos Santos (Barcelona), Gomes (PSV) and David Bentley (Blackburn) come with impressive credentials.

Spurs, however, specialize in false dawns. They spent heavily in the transfer market last summer, too, only to start poorly under Martin Jol, who was quickly replaced by Juande Ramos.

Just four clubs conceded more goals, three of whom were relegated, but Spurs supporters can still have realistic hopes of a more realistic challenge to the Big Four.

Barry looks like he will stay at Villa, which has brought in Brad Friedel (Blackburn), Luke Young (Middlesbrough), Carlos Cuellar (Rangers), Steve Sidwell (Chelsea) and Nicky Shorey (Reading).

Sixth last season, Villa is a club on the rise.

Everton finished fourth and fifth in the last two seasons, but has trod water this summer in the transfer market. It sold striker Andy Johnson to Fulham, but new recruits have yet to arrive.

Chairman Bill Kenwright claimed that Everton "needs a billionaire" and gives the impression of a club struggling to balance the books.

David Moyes has proved a most resourceful manager, getting more from his team than could reasonably be expected, but remaining competitive will test his abilities to the limit.

Ninth place last season was not good enough for Sven-Goran Eriksson to keep his job and Manchester City's Thai owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, brought in Mark Hughes.

Having guided Blackburn to seventh, Hughes will be expected to reach the top six with City, especially after paying £19 million for Brazil striker Jo.

If predicting the top four in the Premier League is easy, choosing the three to go down appears similarly straightforward. Hull, Stoke and West Bromwich, which all came up from the Championship, are the bookmakers' favorites to make a speedy return.

As we know, the bookies make few mistakes.

* * * * *

THE FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION's Respect program makes its debut this season. The project is aimed at encouraging players and managers to respect match officials more.

A worthy gesture, but the so-called crackdown is nothing more than lip-service.

The F.A. spoke of "new measures," but no disciplinary sanctions were mentioned.

Not one.

As ever, the F.A. doesn't want to upset the League Managers' Association or Professional Footballers' Association.

If a manager misbehaves in the technical area he will be sent to the stands.

Big deal.

That'll teach him a lesson. Not.

Many watch half the game from the stand, anyway.

The F.A. should adopt the UEFA policy of subsequently banning the manager from the dressing-room area and touchline for the next game.

That would send out a message, not banishing them to the stand for possibly two minutes.

Under UEFA's disciplinary measures, domestic managers' touchline behavior would improve. Chairmen wouldn't be too happy if their manager couldn't do the main part of his job that week.

F.A. chairman Lord Triesman has had good press, but as yet there has been no change in any disciplinary procedures despite public huffing and puffing. So far he has only talked a good game.

Sir Alex Ferguson was allowed to get away with his comments about referee Martin Atkinson after the F.A. Cup defeat by Portsmouth that clearly questioned the official's impartiality.

Had Fergie said that about a Champions League referee, UEFA would have come down on him like a ton of bricks.

Which is why Ferguson and company choose not to criticize European refs as they do Premier League officials.

UEFA strong, F.A. weak.

Managers know this. A manager can expect little more than a £10,000 fine that the club pays for domestic indiscretions.

The FA's punishments (non-punishments) are absolutely no deterrent.

In fact, ref-baiting managers think it is money (the club's money) well spent if they can intimidate a referee.

How can we expect players to respect referees when managers constantly belittle them and blame them for their team's defeat?

The F.A. has allowed the situation to stagnate to such an extent that referees can never be respected.

I was at a Championship game last season, and when the home team was read out there was little or no reaction from the fans. When the ref's name was announced there were boos all around the stadium.

The Respect campaign is too little far too late. Clubs should fine any player cautioned for dissent.

And referees should adopt a zero-tolerance policy. But while public opinion is behind ridding the game of posturing players, if referees started to show five or six yellow cards for dissent, it would mean one or two of those dissenters being subsequently sent off.

Would those who have called for referees to take a much harder line then back the officials' action?

Will Sky Sports, the BBC and print media say: "Well done, ref. The game ended 10 vs. 9, but you did a great job."

I don't think so.

Christopher Davies is the author of the recently released book "Behind The Back Page."


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