The weekend's Premier League fixtures gave the global audience the chance to see how the season's early frontrunners are shaping up, with the mania of the summer transfer window having died down and the fixture schedule beginning to bite as the cup competitions get into gear. Unfortunately for the fans of the pretenders to the crown shared by Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, the latest round of games gave a clear indication that the Big Four will be resisting expansion, until 2010 at least.
The Big Four all helped themselves to 3 goals or more, and that was after all four got off to a winning start in the Champions League, though not necessarily convincingly. Moreover, the quartet's most promising challengers were among the sides to be leaking goals, with Spurs shipping 3 at Stamford Bridge and Manchester City conceding 4 in a classic derby with United. Consolation may be sought in the fact that away fixtures at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge may be considered the toughest games of the domestic season, but the problems facing City and Spurs lie in a crucial, but familiar, area.
That area is the defence. White Hart Lane is notorious for being the home of many a defensive clanger, and 'Arry's efforts to consign defensive unreliability to the past will not be helped by possessing three horribly injury-prone central defenders. Woodgate and King in particular; though both fine footballers, they are all too often to be found in the treatment room, rather than the Tottenham penalty area. Michael Dawson showed signs of improvement last season but remains inconsistent, while Sebastian Bassong has started well and was fortunate to escape serious injury after a nasty fall against Chelsea. In the full-back positions, first choices Vedran Corluka and Benoit Assou-Ekotto are solid but hardly excellent, while back ups Alan Hutton and Gareth Bale are both average at best as defenders, though good attacking weapons. It comes as little surprise to learn that Spurs have not kept a clean sheet in their first 6 Premiership games.
City started the season in fine defensive form, but like Spurs have shipped 6 goals in their last two games - games played against members of the Big Four. Clean sheets in the earlier clashes suggest that their backline is in finer fettle than their North London compatriots, even if those games were against Blackburn, Portsmouth and Wolves. Indeed, their problems are less serious than those facing Redknapp; captain Kolo Toure seems more focused than in his last days at The Emirates, while Shay Given remains magnificent between the sticks. The jury remains out on Joleon Lescott, who was unimpressive against United. Perhaps the price tag is weighing him down, but he is still a weaker defender than his previous defensive partner, the colossal Phil Jagielka. City rely on Given to bail them out with worrying regularity - though he regularly proves equal to the task - and may miss Toure when he joins a number of Chelsea stars (and suspended hotshot Emmanuel Adebayor) at the African Cup of Nations in January.
Apologies for neglecting fans of last season's fifth and sixth placed sides, Everton and Aston Villa. I personally cannot see either overhauling Spurs and City, so this may be the battle for seventh. Villa are coming into form after a poor start to the season, having made some good additions to their backline and seen John Carew return to fitness. The rapid trio of Milner, Young and Agbonlahor have plenty of goals in them, and they look a good bet for seventh, especially as they have already completed their European commitments for the season. Everton have yet to settle into their stride, and still miss the talismanic Mikel Arteta, but the return of Nigerian frontman Yakubu from injury will ease the burden on the likes of Cahill and Saha (who himself is surely due another injury). Everton are well stocked in defence and midfield, and when Jagielka returns they should be strong. Expect a season-long struggle for seventh, with both pushing hard at City and Spurs above them.
But, barring further extravagant strengthening in January from City, I cannot see the Big Four being broken up this season, even though three of the pretenders have no European distractions. Regarding the order of the Big Four, I find it difficult to look past Chelsea and United for first and second, with Arsenal and Liverpool in hot pursuit. Not sure about the order yet, but I do know that January will go a long way to determining it...