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Oct 18, 2009

Wigan slow City's climb to the top

It's been a long time since a clash between Wigan Athletic versus Manchester City received so much attention and that shows how much more competitive it has become at the very highest level in the Premier League this season.

• Wigan Athletic 1-1 Manchester City

That can only be good for the game and it is a very healthy situation indeed. An average of three goals per game and only five draws in 85 Premier League games to date, illustrates the higher level of entertainment and willingness of teams to go on the attack.

Mark Hughes' City team have made quite an impact already and are good value to break into that coveted top four. I believe they will make it and despite what Hughes might say, I am also convinced there will be new world class players arriving at Eastlands in the January transfer window. Maybe City won't be spending another £100 million but they will be selling Robinho or swapping him, and Hughes believes that will strengthen his hand in the second half of the season.

For so long it seemed like 'mission impossible' to break the monopoly of the 'Big Four', but the new money flooding into the Premier League has transformed City into a club able to compete for a Champions League place.

With Harry Redknapp making such a bright start at Spurs and Villa having such a shrewd manager in Martin O'Neill, the game has been lit up by many teams who believe they can break into the top four, and with attacking football at that.

The title race still seems a two-horse race between champions Manchester United and Chelsea, but this season has already been one of so many surprises, that it might open up.

O'Neill was adamant that the team that finishes above Chelsea will win the league, after his Villa side beat Carlo Ancelotti's title favourites 2-1, which left Sir Alex Ferguson with an opportunity he didn't waste against Bolton to take Manchester United back to the top of the table.

Chelsea, who lost 3-1 to the Latics, would have loved to have left Wigan with a point three weeks ago, but Hughes' side managed it, even after going down to ten men. So, at least City did better than Chelsea at the DW stadium, where Wigan are not easy to beat as they begin to progress under Roberto Martinez.

But while so many are saying it's too early in the season to make judgments, that's sitting on the fence. Manchester City can be judged now, there has been plenty of time to make a sensible assessment, and at the moment they look shy of being champions.

Manchester United have gone down to ten men and won. Sometimes it's impossible to notice much difference when Arsenal go down a man down as they pass the ball and move it with such precision. Hughes' team are still coming together, but with so many of his acquisitions already accustomed to the Premier League, they have bedded down admirably.

Hughes also has strength in depth, perhaps more so than most teams at the top. Martin Petrov replaced Craig Bellamy against Wigan and scored an equaliser that earned the point that took City to fifth. But with a game in hand, it is possible they could leap up to third, just a point behind Chelsea and two adrift of United with a win.

Alan Wiley was back in the spotlight at the DW Stadium and though Hughes did not question his fitness levels, he did feel there was a worthy penalty appeal when Shaun Wright-Phillips was brought down, and expressed concerns about the sending off of Pablo Zabaleta.

Wiley's fitness will be back in the headlines soon enough however, with Sir Alex Ferguson about to be charged by the FA, and the commission likely to inflict punishment on the United boss.

While many are finally appreciating that this is the most open season for many years in the Premier League, this is not news to regular readers of this column. An exclusive ESPN Soccernet interview with Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore some weeks suggested it would be an open season.

Personally, I have been predicting for several weeks it was going to be a nightmare scenario for one of the established 'Big Four', with so many making a concerted challenge. I picked out Liverpool from the word go as the team under most pressure. I was no prophet of doom, merely arguing that they rely too much on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

Football is a simple game, so the cliché goes, and the crux of the argument is simply that Liverpool are short of top class understudies. Not just that, they cannot replace Torres and Gerrard without serious investment in the team, and that is not going to be forthcoming unless there is a change of ownership.

It is also clear that the American owners are already pointing an accusatory finger at the manager, and some fans are beginning to question Rafa Benitez.

With the 'Big Four' losing left, right and centre, and the emergence of an underclass ready to rebel against the status quo of United Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal this could yet prove to be one of the most exciting title races in years.

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