Reports that Roman Abramovich is looking more cheerful than anyone who has just lost £3bn has a right to are possibly being exaggerated. Anyone would look animated sitting next to Guus Hiddink, who seems to believe facial expressions are no more necessary than attacking full-backs and whose sphinx impersonation leaves Abramovich and Sven-Goran Eriksson looking like amateurs.
What have Chelsea’s odd couple got to smile about in any case? Arsène Wenger has just conceded the title to “untouchable” Manchester United, one bookmaker is already paying out on the main three domestic prizes ending up at Old Trafford, and just as Sir Alex Ferguson was suggesting the league is now a two-horse race a defeatist note was sounded by the jockey of the other runner when Jamie Carragher claimed that finishing second would represent a significant improvement by Liverpool.
This, you realise, is what life might have been like for the past four or five seasons but for Abramovich and his money. One feels it is wrong for mega-rich individuals to tilt the balance of fair competition by pumping ludicrous amounts of cash into clubs that barely deserve it, and Michel Platini is right to draw attention to the fact that Chelsea’s staggering wealth forces everyone else into debt or penury. How interesting would the league have been for most of this century, though, had it been left to Arsenal and Liverpool to challenge Manchester United?
There would have been no José Mourinho, for a start. No back-to-back titles, no record run unbeaten at home, and none of the excitement of taking Manchester United all the way to penalties in Moscow last year. The last time I used that expression, by the way, I was taken to task for being too generous to United, because Chelsea would have won the Champions League but for John Terry slipping as he took his kick, though I hardly think history can be rewritten to the extent of saying United took Chelsea all the way to penalties in Moscow. That’s not how history works.
Anyway, it is just about conceivable that without Chelsea’s wealth some of their star players would have gravitated to Arsenal or Liverpool and therefore made United’s life harder, though it takes a little imagination to envisage Didier Drogba fitting in with the Rafa Benítez regime or Wenger breaking the bank to land Michael Ballack. Ashley Cole may well have stayed with the Gunners without the lure of Chelsea’s loot, but it seems much more likely that United would have hoovered up Chelsea targets such as Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Arjen Robben and stayed well clear at the top.
Chelsea’s demise, or temporary setback if you prefer, has left United out on their own. Not just at the top of the league but in other significant areas. All the prospective footballers of the year, from Ryan Giggs to Nemanja Vidic to Michael Carrick, are at Old Trafford, and while Arsenal’s reserve team may have phenomenal potential no one can match the blend of youth and experience not only available to Ferguson but already playing for him.
Gary Neville’s latest contract means that he, Giggs and Paul Scholes will finish their careers exactly where they started, having won everything in sight along the way. Considering they are all local to Manchester that is a remarkable achievement in itself in the modern game. That trio’s longevity is underpinned by a mid-layer of class and considerable experience in the form of Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Vidic, Dimitar Berbatov and Edwin van der Sar, with Nani, the Da Silva brothers, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson making occasional appearances on the big stage in exactly the same way that Ferguson’s original fledglings were eased in.
“I couldn’t say whether we are untouchable or not,” Ferguson says. “This game can kick you in the teeth so rule one here is never to get carried away. But we have a big squad now, with some good young players in it. I would say the standard of the league is higher than it was 10 years ago too, so while we have seen big leads eaten away it might not be so easy now. Plus there are so many teams fighting for survival this season virtually every game is tough to win.”
Fergie might say that, though few were left with such an impression after the Fulham game in midweek. It is possible smaller teams now think they can beat Arsenal and Chelsea, and perhaps draw against Liverpool, but do not waste energy trying to take points off United. If so, the only thing to look forward to is Ferguson retiring. He has done his job too well. Otherwise, here are two sentiments for next season I never thought I would find myself writing. Come back Chelsea, and come on Manchester City.