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There is something distinctly familiar about the top of the Premier League table today. For the first time this season, the big four of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool occupy the top four places - in that order. The order is a little different since the last time they were all up there, but they've there they are, and it would be a brave man to predict they won't remain there - and a possibly foolish one to bet money against it.

Worryingly for fans of any one of the big four, intriguingly for neutrals, all of the quartet are in imposing form. Arsenal have been imperious all season, Manchester United for much of it - albeit a little less convincingly, perhaps. Chelsea and Liverpool have hit their stride more recently but look ominously capable of sustaining it.

The Gunners remain unbeaten after 14 matches and the Reds aren't far behind, both having played game one fewer than last season's top two, United and Chelsea. Arsenal play their game in hand tonight at Newcastle; Liverpool's, still to be arranged, is at home to West Ham. (The original fixtures were postponed from August 15th because both Arsenal and Liverpool were playing Champions League third qualifying round ties that week).

The big four are all still in the Champions League - United, Chelsea and Arsenal are already safely through to the first knockout round; Liverpool will be too if they beat Marseille away next week. So from mid-February onwards they will have high-intensity European ties to prepare for and negotiate, which could affect their Premier League performances; but certainly between now and then - bar at least one FA Cup date and, for Chelsea, Liverpool (who play each other) and Arsenal, at least one more Carling Cup night - it is Premier League all the way.

Results during the mid-December to mid-February period could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title race.

If Arsenal can beat troubled Newcastle on Wednesday night at St James' Park they will go into the weekend's matches six points ahead of Manchester United, eight ahead of Chelsea and nine better off than Liverpool (who will have a game in hand).

Despite Newcastle's recent abject form and Arsenal's sustained excellence, it would be dangerous to take the outcome for granted on Wednesday. Magpies manager Sam Allardyce is a wounded animal, and therefore dangerous when cornered. His players have denied newspaper reports of a dressing room revolt against the ex-Bolton boss, who enjoyed a psychological edge over Arsene Wenger and his team until the second-half of last season; but clearly all is not well at Gallowgate.

And Arsenal look like being without midfield playmakers Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb, the creative fulcrum of their team. But the impressive thing about the Gunners so far this season has been their combination of flair and resilience. Every player in the squad looks comfortable on the ball, which offers them many options in most situations, while the physical stuff no longer seems to jar them out of their elegant stride.

If they can beat Newcastle they will be able to observe their three main competitors on Saturday because the Gunners don't play until Sunday. On the face of it, all of the big four should win at the weekend. United host hapless if not yet hopeless Derby County, the bottom boys, so will expect both to win and enhance their goal difference, Paul Jewell's influence on the Rams notwithstanding.

Chelsea meanwhile welcome Roy Keane's Sunderland, who seem unlikely to end he Blues' 70 match unbeaten home run in the League. Liverpool are away to Reading in the early evening game on Saturday, but given the Reds' outstanding away form, the leakiness of Reading's defence and the fact that Liverpool won at the Madejski 4-2 earlier in the season in the Carling Cup, the likely scenario is that Arsenal will take on Middlesbrough at the Riverside on Sunday afternoon having seen each of their three main rivals close the gap on them by three points.

They will be under pressure to restore their lead, as they were a few weeks ago when they played Reading away after United had temporarily gone top of the table. They won 3-1 on that occasion, and seem to be in the mood to battle for every point this season.

The final round of Champions League group games will then intervene before 'Super Sunday', the fateful day (16th December) when Liverpool meet Manchester United at Anfield at 13:30 GMT, and then, at 16:00, Arsenal welcome Chelsea to the Emirates.

It is being said already that this season promises to provide the mot exciting title race for years. That has become a cliche that we seeem to hear at some point every season; but it is promising that all four of the big four are handily placed, with none of them having fallen too far off the pace.

The 16th December showdowns should be particularly fascinating - a real test of each other's credentials. Chelsea, whose progress under Avram Grant has confounded critics who predicted a Stamford Bridge meltdown after Mourinho's exit, have not lost to their London rivals since finally breaking the Gunners' 17-match unbeaten streak against the Blues in a Champions League quarter-final in April 2004. But Wenger's men led Chelsea in each of the three meetings between the clubs last season. And if Chelsea have progressed this season, Arsenal have improved dramatically.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have not had much joy against Manchester United in recent seasons and will be particularly keen to change that at Anfield, not only for the points at stake but also for boost to confidence and the psychological edge that it would give them.

The Reds have been devastatingly prolific in front of goal just lately - 21 in their last five matches, all won - with Fernando Torres underlining his class. But then United have been no slouches either - the aberrant 1-0 defeat by Bolton aside - and have also been finding the back of the net with great frequency, Cristiano Ronaldo sharing the burden with the Wayne Rooney-Carlos Tevez partnership.

So will the title race be a private argument between the big four again? It seems probable, but Manchester City have hung in there since the start and find themselves out of the top four places only by virtue of goal difference from Liverpool (although there is a marked contrast between Liverpool's scored 26, conceded 6 and City's scored 19, conceded 15). City's glaring problem is the dichotomy between their flawless homes form and their relatively poor away performances

Tottenham, who were supposed to make the breakthrough this season, at Arsenal's expense, are struggling near the relegation zone; but Portsmouth have been a revelation.

Pompey's problem. though,. is the opposite of City's: outstanding on the road (five away wins), average at best at home (two wins, five draws).

Aston Villa are fast improving under Martin O'Neill and were unlucky not to get a point against Arsenal on Saturday.

Blackburn have looked very solid at times but at others (such as Villa at home) have floundered. When on song they're difficult to beat, with Mark Hughes effecting tangible improvements season by season.

Everton are serious contenders for a top five or six finish, though it is a surprise to realise they have already lost five games, Nevertheless they have the quality, and are playing with the passion, to push on from here with Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill and Leon Osman all impresing in midfield.

However can any of those five break into the top four this season? Personally I doubt it, though Uefa Cup spots are certainly theirs for the taking.

But who will win the Premier League? And will the December 16th matches offer up many reliable clues as to the answer?
 

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The writing is on the wall every season really !

I mean - who can actually cross the gap between the Big 4 and the 'others'.....

Unless another Abramovich comes along and gives someone big money it will be a hard gap to breach.

I hear some Russian is after the Spurs for 400 million though :eek:
 

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I think the gap between the top 4 and the rest is getting smaller. the teams going for the UEFA cup spots are hanging on the coat-tails of the top4. On their day, they (Pompey, City, Everton, blackburn and Villa) are capable of beating any team in the league. The Prem race is a lot closer this year and though I expect the top 4 to pull away from the pack somewhat there will be a lot of twists and turns on the way. It will certainly make it one of the closest and most interesting season in a long long time.
 

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Jazz 16 said:
I think the gap between the top 4 and the rest is getting smaller. the teams going for the UEFA cup spots are hanging on the coat-tails of the top4. On their day, they (Pompey, City, Everton, blackburn and Villa) are capable of beating any team in the league. The Prem race is a lot closer this year and though I expect the top 4 to pull away from the pack somewhat there will be a lot of twists and turns on the way. It will certainly make it one of the closest and most interesting season in a long long time.

That's completely true Jazz....good post......

However the gap between the newly promoted clubs from the championship are suffering because of this.........
It used to be they could beat nearly any league team on their day but now their is only a handful they have any chance against........
 

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its just the norm for the big 4 to be on top with the other teams below them.For a big team to break into the top four in one season is extraordinary.
 

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As long as Cahill and Arteta are a class act, Everton will always be top 6ish, they have potential....

The 'big 4' will battle this seasons title out and it will be closer than ever before in my opinion..one thign despite Liverpool doing good, I think they cant win it, it's not possible for them to win the EPL..their fans think otherwise....aand it annoys me! :p

Us or Arsenal for the title, with Chelsea pushing us ALL the way.
 

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The order of the top 4 is not that different - it's just Arsenal have jumped from 4th to 1st.

Jazz is right - the gap between the big 4 and the rest has closed this season. The amount of money spent in the summer set new records and you can see the impact.

Although Blackburn Rovers have impressed me - apart from Santa Cruz they hardly spent any money and they're still ahead of the likes of Newcastle and Spurs.
 

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The team outside of the top four who have impressed me the most are Everton.....

They have such a strong squad now and as Aj said, with players like Cahill and Arteta you are always going to be creating opportunities and scoring goals.......

Jolean Lescott has argubly been the best central defender in the league so far this season and with Johnson and Yakubu up front goals should not be a problem.....

And former United player Tim Howard in goal......!!

I have backed them in the handicap betting with a lot of vcash........I think it was worth it.....!!!
 

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Jazz 16 said:
I think the gap between the top 4 and the rest is getting smaller. the teams going for the UEFA cup spots are hanging on the coat-tails of the top4. On their day, they (Pompey, City, Everton, blackburn and Villa) are capable of beating any team in the league. The Prem race is a lot closer this year and though I expect the top 4 to pull away from the pack somewhat there will be a lot of twists and turns on the way. It will certainly make it one of the closest and most interesting season in a long long time.
I still stand by this but just want to add the teams Reading and Boro to those who can beat anyone. lmao :D
 
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