The fantastic four: Wenger hails four-horse title race that will go down to wire
The billing for this weekend's Premier League matches, with Liverpool hosting Manchester United and Arsenal anticipating Chelsea later tomorrow afternoon, was never going to be a problem but yesterday Arsène Wenger also gave a wonderful context to what this season is shaping up to be.
It is, the measured old campaigner said emphatically, the most competitive he has been involved in, a genuine four-horse race in a league that has so often been down to two – or won at a canter by one. This one, the Arsenal manager said of his 12th season fighting for the prizes in England, may require a photo-finish with all four straining to cross the line first.
"I believe, without a doubt, this year will be the most exciting year in the Premier League because, since I have been here, there have never been four teams who, after 16 games, are as tight as this," Wenger said. It was a verdict with which those very same rivals, separated by seven points, which could be narrowed to four if Liverpool win their game in hand, concurred. "All four of the big clubs can win it," said the Chelsea manager, Avram Grant. "The difference between us is not so big."
That difference may be determined by just who each manager can get fit and on to the pitch. Tomorrow Wenger, for example, will make late decisions on the injured trio of Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini while Grant just might attempt to mitigate the loss of Didier Drogba and the suspended Michael Essien by bringing back Michael Ballack. The German is finally free of his persistent ankle problems and might, just might, make a first appearance since April.
It could eventually give Chelsea some kind of edge, but Wenger insisted there was little to split the top four. "For me all the three are the same now – but for different reasons," he said of Arsenal's rivals. "Chelsea because they have the quality, they have the experience, they have done it. Liverpool because they have invested a lot and are keen to win it. And Man United because they have the individual potential to score goals at any moment and they have done it as well. It's very difficult to make a difference between the other three and I believe that is super-healthy."
Although beneficial there was, as ever with Wenger, a qualification which, although subtle, clearly in his eyes marked Arsenal as the purists out of the elite – a claim that will undoubtedly infuriate the others. "What you want is that it's fair," he said of his expectations of the battles ahead. "And that it remains fair during the season. Because it can get a little bit out of hand when it's tight sometimes and so it's down to the consistency in the big games." Asked to explain, just a little bit more, what he meant by that, he added simply: "No".
His meaning, however, was clear enough, given the scrapes he has been involved in with Sir Alex Ferguson in the past and the potential for such combativeness that exists with Rafa Benitez. Then, of course, there is Chelsea, although there is no more Jose Mourinho, who found in Wenger a prickly adversary. Tomorrow's game, Wenger said, will be very different from the clashes he had with the self-styled Special One which, given his record of not beating Mourinho in any of their 10 encounters, will also be a relief for him.
"Avram Grant has a completely different profile," he said. "He's not very noisy. But his team is efficient and I believe his results have spoken for him." Indeed they have. Chelsea's unbeaten run extends to an impressive 16 games in all competitions but Wenger was also keen to claim, and rightly so, that now comes the Israeli's first real test. "To see the philosophy of a team you need to see them in a big game," he said. "In a small game you always dominate at home and you are always attacking. As for the philosophy of the game, we will see more about Chelsea on Sunday."
Indeed we will and that philosophy, according to Grant, is to commit to attacking football. But, despite some glimpses, he is far from reaching the aesthetic heights routinely witnessed right now at the Emirates. Chelsea's league games have yielded 33 goals – 24 for and nine against – which is the lowest ratio of any Premier League team. How Grant needs a big game from Andrei Shevchenko, whom Wenger praised yesterday but who he also admitted was not a "fighter" like Drogba, whom he had attempted to buy several years ago when he played for Le Mans. "Our clubs play different football, but we both play positive," Grant claimed. "It takes time to build a style but you have to be patient – although there isn't much patience at Chelsea. I will try to do it as soon as possible."
His new four-year contract will help, at least in public. "People around him must see that he has done something," Wenger observed. The truth is that, despite the patronage of Roman Abramovich, if Grant fails he falls, no matter what the small print says. Still the Russian billionaire will give Grant as much time, and as many opportunities as he can, which was not necessarily the case for Mourinho. Certainly Abramovich – and Chelsea – will have a clearer idea of just who they are being led by after tomorrow's match.
Wenger, who needs to recover from his young team's recent wobble, will too. He said that Grant had come to the Arsenal training ground to observe when he was coach of the Israeli national team and added: "So he knows more about me than I know about him". That ran contrary to the claim by the Israeli, an assiduous networker, that the pair are "good friends".
Such niceties will have to be put to one side tomorrow, while the stakes will also, hopefully, mean that the return of Ashley Cole to the club he left two years ago in such bitter circumstances is also relegated to a brief sideshow. Wenger, just like Grant, Ferguson and Benitez, will not countenance defeat. It may not be "decisive" in a season that has not even reached its halfway point but it could be instructive as to who to back in this four-horse race.
Vital games at a vital time Glenn Moore picks his winners and losers
A team cannot win the title at Christmas, but they can lose it. With 15 points at stake between now and the FA Cup third round, the Premier League table might alter significantly, but such are the fixtures it may simply become even tighter. After this weekend all four clubs have difficult games against such resurgent sides as Everton, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Aston Villa and West Ham. Predicting results is always tricky, but it may be that, by 3 January, there are three clubs tied on 45 points and Liverpool, with a game in hand, also in contention.