YOU could get a taxi from Arsenal’s ground to Crystal Palace’s, it’s only a dozen or so miles. In terms of the English Premiership though it might as well be a million.
Arsenal are available at around 11-8 to retain the Premiership title. Crystal Palace are on offer at 5,000-1.
Put like that you might think that the English Premiership echoes the iniquities of its Scottish counterpart. Realistically there are only three teams capable of winning the title. In between Arsenal at the summit and the soft bedrock of Crystal Palace, though, lie several rich seams of entertainment and a level of competitiveness that can only make Scottish football fans look on with empty- pocketed envy.
At the top it is distinctly unedifying. Manchester United and Chelsea have entered the realms of multi-nationals, and deserve the same degree of cynical suspicion (although that doesn’t make their respective teams any less alluring).
The still healthy flow of TV money into English football means that while lesser teams can’t compete for the superstars, even a side as eternally unfashionable as Middlesbrough can afford to recruit the likes of Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka and Ray "Alimony" Parlour. While the eventual destination of the Championship trophy is relatively predictable. On any given Saturday, Sunday or Monday evening, a Premiership match is rarely a foregone conclusion.
Arsene Wenger’s Old Invincibles will be everybody’s target from tomorrow afternoon when they visit Goodison Park. With Patrick Vieira now expected to stay it is difficult to see any club with the attacking verve to match Arsenal, and what makes the Premiership such compelling entertainment is that the side with the best forwards tends to win it.
That may be the reason Manchester United may be struggling to hang on to Arsenal’s coat-tails in the early months. Without the goals (and dubious penalties) that Ruud Van Nistelrooy provides, with Louis Saha looking to miss a couple of months, and Ole-Gunnar Solksjaer out for the foreseeable future Sir Alex Ferguson is short on attacking options. The purchase of Alan Smith was astute, although the suspicion is that United only bought him because they could get away with offering Leeds a derisory price. That seems to be the keystone of their negotiations with Everton over Wayne Rooney: an assumption that Everton are so cash-strapped that they will eventually have to let English football’s most exciting teenager go for well below his true value.
Chelsea, by contrast, are prepared to splash out transfer fees that are patently ludicrous - 13 million on the Porto full-back Paulo Ferreira when they could have got Roberto Carlos for about a tenth of that.
Spending 20 million on Ricardo Carvalho also seems extravagant, although Carvalho will be a crucial cornerstone of Jose Mourinho’s new Chelsea team.
Given that he won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in successive seasons it would be perverse if Mourinho didn’t try to build Chelsea in the mould of Porto, viz a very disciplined and tidy defence, an athletic and occasionally combative midfield, and fast tricky strikers playing ahead of a clever play maker.
Carvalho and John Terry on paper form the best centre-back partnership in the league, Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele are a formidable central midfield pairing, while Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman have the capacity to torment Premiership defences if they can adjust to the English game quickly.
The most intriguing aspect of Chelsea’s opener against United tomorrow afternoon will be Joe Cole’s contribution. Mourinho has apparently promised Cole the play maker’s role behind the strikers, a position that has fortuitously also become vacant for England with the international retirement of Paul Scholes.
Lurking on the title fringes are a manager having his first year in England, and one having his last. Rafa Benitez’s Spanish Liga currency is golden, but initially he might find the exchange rate on Merseyside somewhat punitive. He won huge amounts of credit on the Kop by persuading Steven Gerrard to stay, perhaps even enough to survive the loss of Michael Owen to Madrid. As a coach and a tactician Benitez is among Europe’s elite, but the immediate task at Anfield is one of man-management, raising morale and instilling belief.
Man-management is also Sir Bobby Robson’s priority at Newcastle. Handicapped by his chairman’s insistence that this will be Robson’s last year, the manager has to face the suspicion and hostility of his disenchanted captain Alan Shearer, impatiently waiting to be anointed as his successor.
With a host of talented, egotistical, under-achievers like Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer and the new signing Patrick Kluivert, Robson’s chances of forging a winning team in his last Premiership season look slim. Not quite as slim as Palace’s of course.
Their biggest close-season signing so far has been Julian Speroni for 500,000. At least former Dundee ‘keeper Speroni already knows all about hopeless causes.