English Premier Preview: Arsenal, Chelsea, Man U and More

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"All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others." -- George Orwell, Animal Farm.

Is this the season that the dreaded "p" word -- parity -- hits the English Premier League?

All signs point to ... maybe.

First-place Chelsea are still a comfortable nine points clear of teams Nos. 5-7, all on 19 points. It's who those teams are that's surprising -- Bolton and Sunderland.

More than ever, it seems week-to-week anyone can beat anybody, highlighted by Chelsea actually losing a league match at Stamford Bridge.

Without hoping into the Delorean and hitting 88 mph, what is the future of the English game going to look like? And how will that trickle down to the rest of world soccer? (Remember, it's all interconnected.)

Remember, the Prem took the first step toward leveling the playing field in earnest by capping the rosters for games at 25. Couple that with Michel Platini's new UEFA "financial fair-play" regulations that will force clubs to a) play more homegrown players and b) curb debts in line with revenues, i.e. even free-spending Manchester City will have to shake up its roster when these rules are enacted. You'd think the super-spending clubs will eventually hit a cap of how many players they'll be able to keep around at one time, instead of stockpiling assets.

So it begs the question, why aren't clubs challenging the established "Big Four"? Better yet, why aren't clubs even thinking about it? Have the "Thought Police" erased that part of their brains?

It wasn't always this way in England.

Prior to the Premier League era in 1992, which has seen the trophy only lifted by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn. Since 2000, only three teams have won.

In the 1960s seven clubs won the old First Division. In the 1970s it was five, the same total as the 1980s through the start of the Premier League.

Why don't clubs think big any more? When the season startedonly seven of the league's 20 teams realistically could sell to their fans the idea of winning. Granted, it's not the NFL, but why concede before it even starts?

It all brings me to my other point for today, the case of Jordan Henderson.

This week, or at least until England took a dump on the grass at Wembley Stadium, the stock was soaring for the young Sunderland midfielder, with links to both Manchester clubs for upwards of $30 million for the 20-year-old.

Money is money, but what is Sunderland telling to its fans if it sells off a promising, home-grown player? Yeah, the long-standing equation in England -- or elsewhere -- is the big fish eats the little one, but isn't Henderson the kind of player you try to build around? Especially when you splash out the money on Asamoah Gyan in August? Or when you have a nice, new-ish Stadium of Light with passionate fans?

Unless Henderson forces the issue and demands an exit, shouldn't the club hold firm?

Running a soccer club is business, but is this the good kind?

Shouldn't the rest of Premier League take a look at what Tottenham did by finishing fourth and breaking up the Manchester United -- Arsenal -- Chelsea -- Liverpool cabal? (Granted, Spurs did spend a ton of money ...)

By the same token, take a gander at the side Aston Villa last weekend vs. Manchester United, when it fielded a lineup that included three U-21 players: Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfounseo and Barry Bannan, along with home-grown product Gabby Agbonlahor.

What's the long-term incentive for Aston Villa, a solidly run, financially sound club?Play these players while they're young and face losing them to a bigger club if they show signs of improvement?

Or what of the possible plight of surprise fifth place Bolton? Will it be forced to sell off Johan Elmander or Gary Cahill when Arsenal or others come calling?

Maybe the best answer to all this is changing the perceptions in the media. Perhaps the English press needs to stop fanning the flames of speculation or writing that a club like Bolton isn't allowed to have bigger ambitions than finishing in eighth place. This will allow the people running the club to hold firm and care about the product on the field, and less so on the bottom line. It's not an exact equation, but shouldn't winning or improved play eventually lead to increased revenues?

A wild, exciting Premier League where half the team could have a realistic chance of winning?

Nah, who would want that?

Round 14 Picks:


* Arsenal v. Tottenham -- (Live, ESPN2, 7:45 a.m.) Never understand why the best game of the weekend happens to fall so often at the start of the slate, particularly on the U.S. West Coast. Suppose it works out in England since this is a standalone game, which everybody can watch. Doesn't quite work with the worldwide broadcasting. Then again, it's hard to complain about something that actually puts the English fans ahead of us unwashed worldwide philistines.

So here we are. The North London Derby. Red vs. White. Cesc vs. Luka. Arsene vs. 'Arry. ... Hirshey vs. Simmons. (You know Simbo loves The Spurs almost as much as Josh Freeman.)

One thing, for certain, we'll learn from this match is there's no stopping the cult of Gareth Bale. In the form of Bacary Sagna, Arsenal has a right back perfectly suited to drap over the young Welshman and lock down his runs, especially if Alex Song prevents the cuts inside. If the Gunners are unable to slow down Bale, I wouldn't be half surprised to see him making that goofy heart symbol with his hands next to Taylor Swift on a Thanksgiving float.

I'm also fully intrigued to see what Rafael van der Vaart brings to this ultra-heated derby. The Dutchman is certainly a showman, with the flair for the dramatic. On the huge stage of the Emirates, will be conduct a Tottenham symphony? A Spurs' symphony that might include the returning Jermain Defoe.

Spurs will need him to show up, since the midfield won't quite be the same without Tom Huddlestone involved. Wilson Palacios is who we think he is. If Redknapp gambles with Sandro, chances are he's be more out of his element than Donnie in "The Big Lebowski." The task will probably fall to the surprisingly decent Jermaine "Rhymes With" Jenas, who's been an actual contributor this season at White Hart Lane.

As for Arsenal? Not only does the club need to put up a showing to appease the fans, but the Gunners are now in prime position to jet by Chelsea in the league table. Can this team take care of business? Maroune Chamakh certainly has the physical skills to tool all over the Spurs defense. Hell, if he gives a hard look in Ledley King's direction it might sprain the knee of the Spurs' captain.

Be aware of young Jack Wilshere, who might want to steal some of Bale's U.K. teen-idol heat. Granted, he's more of the "bad boy" model, what with his ankle-crunching Scholes-ian tackles and drinking imbroglios and all.

However it breaks down, it's hard to envision this being a dull slog, even if the actually Gunners squad itself is, well, rather milquetoast. They all seem so mild-mannered. ... Arsenal 2, Spurs 2

* Manchester United v. Wigan Athletic -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) The boy is back in town. Spread the word around. Guess who's back in town. Is there a more underrated band from the 1970s than Thin Lizzy? Is there a more underrated player in the Premier League than Charles N'Zogbia? Oh right, Wayne Rooney might be on the bench for this one. Figures. In this match up Manchester United are the roadrunner and poor Wigan are the Coyote. Roberto Martinez, be on alert for falling boulders while leaving Old Trafford. ... Manchester United 2, Wigan 0.

* West Bromwich Albion v. Stoke City -- Since the Kansas City Wiz -- still miss the "Follow the Yellowbrick Road" jerseys -- became Sporting Kansas City this week, a nice Twitter hashtag trend of "FutureMLSfranchises" popped up, as people started applying "traditional" soccer names like Athletic or Sparta or Rovers or Wanderers to American cities. Didn't see too many Albions, which explains what I have to say about this match. ... West Brom 2, Stoke City 0

* Bolton v. Newcastle United -- Too bad Fox Soccer couldn't "flex schedule" into this match, since it's a much better watch at the moment than Manchester United/Wigan, pitting the surprise fifth and eighth place teams. Better yet, you've got American Stuart Holden in the mix for a suddenly tolerable Bolton side, coupled with the rollicking band of bros from Newcastle. Couldn't be more excited for this match, well, unless Nigel de Jong was locked up in jail and Hatem Ben Arfa was still fit to play. Of teams still playing 4-4-2 in England, has the midfield partnership of Holden and Fabrice Muamba evolved into the League's best? Finally, obligatory Andy Carroll mention. ... Bolton 2, Newcastle 1

* Blackpool v. Wolves -- If Blackpool is going to survive the drop, the club will have to continue to win home games against teams in their weight class. The way Wolves play, defensively and clogging the midfield, it might cause some issues for the free-wheeling Tangerine attack. ... Blackpool 1, Wolves 1

* Birmingham City v. Chelsea -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Birmingham City are a team that hasn't been able to find its footing this year. Finding a way to get a result vs. Chelsea would represent a shot in the arm. Problem, for me, with El Brum is Alex McLeish is still putting too much faith in Cameron Jerome. What's the old saying, never trust a guy with two first names? Birmingham are solid at home against the top teams in the league and Chelsea has been misfiring on the road.

Chelsea supporters might taken in encouragement from Flourent Malouda's display for France during the midweek, even if the opponent was, um, England. Meanwhile, I'd be worried with both Alex and John Terry out until at least Christmas, it's putting a lot of pressure on Obi Jon Mikel Obi in the center defensive cog. He's certainly gotten better and matured the last few seasons, but without the defensive safety valve behind him, can he be trusted? Surprised how Ramires has been unable to adjust to the Premier League, too.

Or about about Paolo Ferreira? He's like one of those fringe characters on a TV show that eventually worms his way into the opening credits in, say, the 9th season of the show when most of the original cast has moved on to greener pastures. This probably happened on "ER," which I've never watched. ... Birmingham City 1, Chelsea 1

* Liverpool v. West Ham United -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) No Gerrard. No Lucas. No problem? Fortunately Liverpool welcomes woeful West Ham to Anfield Saturday, where the power of the Kop should be enough to beat the Hammers. Well, maybe. Granted the Gerrard injury looks bleak, but Liverpool would be well-served to see what life without Stevie G would be like -- a lot less Phil Collins, obviously. The guy won't play forever. He's not Gary Speed. One day they'll have to move on without him. Too bad there's no faith in Roy Hodgson, who is playing match-to-match, not thinking long term. West Ham are likely without Scott Parker, which further tips the scales in favor of the Reds, though the way this season is going that might be a massive, err, red flag. ... Liverpool 1, West Ham 0


* Blackburn Rovers v. Aston Villa -- (Live, FSC+, 8:30 a.m.) Not sure why Gerard Houllier felt the need to sign Robert Pires, considering left-sided wide players like Ashley Young and Stewart Downing are already at the club. Seems like a guy, who at 37, would be more inclined to signing with Blackburn under Sam Allardyce. ... Blackburn 1, Aston Villa 2

* Fulham v. Manchester City -- (Live, FSC, 11 a.m.) Fulham, in the black-eyed form of Clint Dempsey, have more fighting spirit than all of Manchester City put together. Guess it makes sense since Mark Hughes is now in charge of Fulham and his nickname was and still is, "Sparky." Will that matter come Sunday at Craven Cottage. Better yet, with City put America to sleep once again before NFL kicks off minutes after the opening whistle? Funny how it seemed a lock that Mark Schwarzer would quit Fulham for Arsenal in August and Shay Given would be the replacement. Wondering if Hughes can channel his anger and loathing toward City onto his team? ... Fulham 1, City 1


* Sunderland v. Everton -- Would it surprise anyone for Sunderland to lay an egg in its first game after lodging the upset of the season? Does Everton really need Landon Donovan at this point when it can get a reasonable facsimile of him in Seamus Coleman? Is Darren Bent really going to rush back from his injury in time for this? Will Tim Cahill score another headed goal. If Job Gruden broadcasted this version of "Monday Night Football" would it be able to find nice things to say about Titus Bramble? Will Steve Bruce once again where his grandmother's quilt as a jacket? ... Sunderland 2, Everton 1

Last round: 2-8 (ouch)
Season: 56-74