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Hughes: Big four is no more

Mark Hughes expects the battle for Premier League honours to be more keenly contested than ever this season, with the traditional 'big four' of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal all under threat from teams below.

Hughes is aiming to have a big say in the final shake-up with Manchester City, while Tottenham and Aston Villa have already served notice they have equal ambition. Gone seem to be the days of top clubs going near-undefeated for whole seasons, with both Chelsea and Liverpool going down to supposedly lesser opposition on the weekend.

With around a quarter of this campaign played, those teams who have made up the top four for the past four seasons have lost nine games between them - that's already more than half than the total of 17 last time around.

"This year has the potential to be as open as it has ever been,'' Hughes said after City's 1-1 draw at Wigan. "The top four teams will drop points. That has been evident at the beginning of the season and it will continue.

"What everyone is trying to do is get into a position by March or April where you are still in contention and you can be a factor. There are going to be a lot of games of real significance at the end of this season rather than it just petering out really for some teams. That has to be good for the Premier League.''

City's hopes of registering their first top-flight away win at Wigan were wrecked by the dismissal of Pablo Zabaleta for a second bookable offence 25 minutes from time.

But, while Hughes did think Zabaleta's first caution for a foul on Maynor Figueroa was harsh, and also claimed the visitors should have had a penalty when the same Wigan man sent Shaun Wright-Phillips flying near the end, he resisted the temptation to attack Alan Wiley, preferring instead to praise the under-fire referee.

"He was in an excellent position - he had kept up with play very well,'' he said. "He made a wrong call but his positioning was excellent. Well done Mr Wiley.''

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