It has been a momentous week at Chelsea, and therefore for the Premier League. Not because what happens at Stamford Bridge has a direct bearing on the rest of English football, but because it does not. Chelsea are a fading force, dismissible, a louder and more lurid version of Arsenal. Suddenly there are two London teams in danger of missing a top-four finish and the Champions League place that goes with it. What has just changed in English football is that the idea of a permanent top four can no longer be taken for granted.
Since 2004, just after the rules were amended to allow four English teams through, the Premier League has supplied the same four clubs to the Champions League group stage every year. Only once in 20 attempts between them – Manchester United in 2005-06 – has any of the “Big Four” failed to make it into the knockout stages of the world’s most lucrative club competition.
Even in 2005, when Everton finished fourth, they could not negotiate the qualifying round and Liverpool, who were allowed to enter from fifth place as holders, joined the usual suspects, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, in the group stages. The same four clubs had dominated the FA Cup since 1996, until Portsmouth managed to break the stranglehold last season, and in the same period the same Big Four have supplied every footballer of the year. Chelsea may have been the last to join the party, but they had the sort of money that worried immediate rivals and, in effect, closed the door on anyone else wishing to join in. Now they look and feel vulnerable.
Consider the reasons for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s departure, for a start. All week we have been hearing about what an extraordinary club Chelsea are, because they sacked Claudio Ranieri after he had led them to a Champions League semi-final, parted company with José Mourinho after two titles in three seasons and remained unimpressed with Avram Grant, who took them to within a whisker of glory in Moscow.
Scolari’s exit – which takes Roman Abramovich’s managerial pay-offs beyond £30m – does not belong in that catalogue. The Brazilian World Cup winner was removed because Chelsea were worried about not finishing in the top four, and that marks them out as an ordinary club. As does four managers in two years. The latest one has arrived as a temp until the end of the season, which puts them dangerously close to being as ordinary as Newcastle. The two clubs both have owners who were amused by the initial publicity, but subsequently stopped attending matches amid speculation that they were reconsidering the wisdom of their investments.
Maybe Guus Hiddink is a manager Abramovich should have gone for earlier, and maybe he will bring about an immediate upturn in fortunes. There is no doubt Hiddink is a highly competent manager, yet even if he stays beyond this season he faces a tougher task than his predecessors. The money tap has been turned off, Manchester City are the silly spenders now and even better placed to attract Brazilians without Scolari as a rival, while at the same time Chelsea are top heavy with under-motivated and over-remunerated players.
Steve Clarke has been allowed to join West Ham, whose notable improvement coincides too neatly with Chelsea’s slump to avoid conclusions being drawn, and Frank Arnesen’s much-vaunted youth production line, supposedly geared up to provide a first-team player every season from next year onwards, remains a low-profile project. Manchester United have the youth, in players such as the Da Silva brothers, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson, and all the experience in the world in Sir Alex Ferguson. It raised a smile last week to read that Scolari at 60 was too old to take on the challenge of knocking Fergie off his perch, even if it made a certain sort of sense. Ferguson has not always been 67; he has been running United since his mid-forties and winning titles for as long as the Premier League has been in existence. That is a tough nut to crack, and all Chelsea have managed this season is to prove Ferguson correct when he suggested they were the ones with the age problem if a significant improvement was expected.
It is not all about Chelsea, though. Part of the reason the top-four cartel is breaking up is the continued pressure applied from beneath by organised, well-run clubs such as Aston Villa and Everton. Particularly Villa, who have just that bit more money than Everton and are not content to keep banging their head on a glass ceiling.
There was a time not long ago when managers such as Kevin Keegan, David Moyes, Sam Allardyce and others would moan about the impossibility of breaking into the top four and the unfairness of competing in such a handicapped event. Keegan famously said last year that the Premier League was “in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world”. Not now. Martin O’Neill is going for it and even Everton might have been harbouring Champions League ambitions but for their poor early-season form.
“Even with our bad start we are not out of the running,” Moyes says. “We’ll keep on going for it, that’s for sure, because I don’t think the top four is as settled as it used to be. But for giving Arsenal two points in the last minute and letting Villa claim all three points in the last second we could be above Arsenal ourselves. The margins are closer than they have been.”
Everton captain Phil Neville agrees: “It is great for the league that Everton and Villa are pushing to get into that top bracket. If you look at the clubs below the top six then there’s probably only Man City who have got a team and resources to really challenge. That would make it seven teams challenging and it can only improve the quality of the league.”
Everton have Villa back at Goodison in the FA Cup this afternoon and Moyes finds himself in the familiar position of putting out a patched-up side (Marouane Fellaini is the latest casualty) against top-four opponents. “We would have loved to have gone for Emile Heskey in January, but we couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I have every admiration for Martin O’Neill, though, he started at the bottom in England and he proved himself at the top in Scotland. He’s doing everything right, and he is turning Villa into a top-four side. He’s dragging them forward and he’s bought some very good players.”
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa’s in-form forward, says: “The way the top four or five is working, anyone could finish anywhere. I don’t think Arsenal are out of it and don’t think Everton are. We’re just looking at trying to keep that position at the moment and if we can get higher we will.”
O’Neill is not making any promises. He hardly needs to when results speak so clearly for themselves. “The key to doing well is going on winning runs of six, seven, eight games in a row,” O’Neill said after Villa’s win at Blackburn. “That’s what the top teams do and amazingly that’s what the lads have managed here. Whether we can sustain our momentum over the next four months is obviously debatable, but we are where we are with two thirds of the season gone.”
If nothing else, Villa’s rise should ensure this will not be another season when the top four remain static by default while none of the chasing pack has sufficient drive to attack the target.
“The most competitive end of the league, the top four, is being broken up,” says Allardyce, now at Blackburn but with plenty of experience from Bolton of having to be content with sixth or seventh position. “I hope we do see a change this season. It’s healthy for the league and important for the entertainment value.”
Arsène Wenger would disagree, having already had to dig deep into his reserves of goodwill this season in a way that Scolari could not, yet it seems clear the Big Four are no longer as insulated against mixed results. When things do go wrong the pressure is both intense and unfamiliar.
So Hiddink could hardly have been handed a trickier first Premier League fixture than Saturday’s trip to Aston Villa. He will get a shock when he studies the tape of his opponents, too, for when Villa visited Stamford Bridge back in October, Chelsea’s 2-0 victory was hailed as a masterclass by the home side and a cruel lesson for O’Neill’s players in the harsh realities of life at the top of the Premier League. Still unbeaten at that point, Chelsea were being described as nailed-on favourites for the title, while Villa, who might have lost by several more goals but for a typically inspired display by Brad Friedel, were being politely told to go back home and forget about the top four. That is how much has changed in under five months.
Villa have lost only one away game since then, bizarrely at Newcastle, and have put together a magnificent sequence of seven consecutive wins on their travels. They sit two points above Chelsea and their manager is having to field questions about a title challenge. No one except Hiddink is talking about a title challenge from Chelsea, and while the new manager is fully entitled to be bullish before a ball has been kicked, his can-do optimism needs to be weighed against Scolari’s weary assertion that he had a “bureaucratic” team without flair or spontaneity. The challenge facing Chelsea is simply to restore confidence to players and spectators and preserve their top-four status. Hiddink talks a good game, but he has been brought in as a firefighter, not a miracle-worker.
Perhaps his task would better be described as preserving Chelsea’s Champions League status, since the old, set-in-stone top four is also being pressurised this season by Uefa rule changes designed to help teams from weaker leagues. The fourth team in the Premier League will still have to go through a qualifying round to reach the financial haven of the group stages, but can no longer expect an easy passage against no-hopers. Instead, those from the leading nations who finish fourth are more likely to find themselves playing each other on a knockout basis, which means only three clubs per season can rely on Champions League income.
While this may appear a subtle change, it is unsafe to assume a permanent top four will easily resolve itself into a permanent top three; nor does it necessarily follow that fourth place will become the springboard into the group stage for newcomers to the Champions League. Teams such as Aston Villa and Everton, as the latter know to their cost after their chastening experience with Villarreal in 2005, are not ideally placed to negotiate sudden-death qualifiers with tasty European opponents, while teams such as Chelsea or Liverpool have the squad size and the experience to take them in their stride. It is difficult to say with any certainty how the rule tweak will work out, but it could end up encouraging smaller teams to aim straight for the top three while allowing certain others to settle for fourth and take their chances.
Not that gatecrashing the group-stage party necessarily sets you up for a comfortable future. Apart from Everton’s abortive attempt, the most recent fingernails dug into the Champions League top table have belonged to Leeds and Newcastle, and look how they ended up. Gaining access to Champions League revenue is just the start. You still need the squad, the stadium, the support and most crucially the success next season to keep it coming. Newcastle appreciate that now, even if it might be too late for Leeds.
“Our intention is to get back on track, and I think our business plan will also be a model for a lot of Premier League clubs,” Newcastle’s hitherto silent managing director, Derek Llambias, has just said, before going on to sound a death knell for the top four as we know it. “We hope to be like Aston Villa.”