For years the English Premier League had operated under the “Big Four” paradigm. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool shared the top four spots while the rest of the league was left to scrap its way into fifth place.
But the rise of Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and other challengers has brought with it a paradigm shift. Suddenly the big four has shrunken to three, with Arsenal and Liverpool falling by the wayside as Manchester City usurps them in English soccer.
Just past the quarter pole in this 38-game season, Manchester United finds itself in a familiar position at the top with money- and talent-rich rivals Chelsea and Manchester City close behind. Two points separate the top three.
While the three elite clubs battle for the title, the also-rans are in a dogfight that could see each drop from European contention to the lower half of the table in a matter of weeks. Six points separate fourth place Everton from 13th place Wigan.
Three games on the weekend provided a glimpse into things to come for the Premiership.
In London, seventh place Fulham’s late equalizer secured a point against an Everton club that has now drawn four consecutive games. The 2-2 result showcased once again the awkward brilliance of Everton’s Marouane Fellaini. The afro-ed Belgian scored twice for the Toffees, hit the post once and was an all-around menace for Fulham’s defense to handle.
But the Merseyside club will surely rue the lost points. Everton’s grasp on the lucrative fourth position grows ever more tenuous as the weeks pass.
Of course, to Ed’s chagrin, they won’t be feeling any real threat from Arsenal if Saturday’s clash with Manchester United is any indication. The much anticipated match, ex-Gunner Robin Van Persie’s first against his former club, showcased the widening gap between the once tight rivals. Van Persie opened the scoring no more than five minutes into the game. For the next 85 he tantalized the Gunners’ defense with deceptive runs, deft touches and sly passes. The 2-1 final scoreline obfuscates Manchester United’s dominance in the match.
Arsenal managed but 3 shots on target, and those only came in the waning minutes of the game. Manager Arsene Wenger never missed his former Dutch striker more. Their halftime hug suggested that there were no hard feelings between the two. It was Wenger who held on longer.
Arsenal’s star signing Santi Cazorla did net a sensational consolation goal, but surely that did little to bring optimism to the sullen club. In two seasons, the Gunners have lost Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasir, Robin Van Persie and Alex Song to greener pitches as North London’s trophy drought continues.
The reality is this: With the win, Manchester United took over the top spot in the league while Arsenal now sits nine points adrift in sixth place.
Finally we get to the goal of the weekend. On Sunday, once mighty Liverpool hosted Newcastle in a game between clubs dreaming of Europe. Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye put the Magpies ahead with a superb half-volley in the first half.
The second half belonged to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. We’ve discussed the divisive Uruguayan before here. Say what you want about his controversial antics, but Suarez’s sublime talent with a soccer ball is undeniable.
How can I begin to describe the difficulty of that goal? Suarez has three yards to take a 50-yard ball off his chest and round the keeper. He does so with remarkable ease.
His ability to play within himself may yet salvage Liverpool’s season. A moment of madness from Suarez, however — i.e, last year’s racial abuse — could derail the Reds’ campaign altogether.
No figure is more symbolic of the precarious line between fourth place and 14th. Let’s hope that the remaining three quarters of the season prove as exciting as the first.
With so much in certain disarray, we shan’t be disappointed.