Lovely Craven Cottage. The name conjures images of a county hamlet where you might retire after an afternoon of fox hunting and lawn bowling. Hardly the Gates of Hell for a club like Arsenal who have only conceded defeat to Fulham twice since 1966, a factoid repeated ad nauseam by commentators and pundits as Fulham-newcomer Hangeland’s goal in the eighteenth minute aged and aged and aged.
Until down Arsenal went, one-nil. And that’s not all. Last weekend, Middlesborough embarrassed perpetually ‘new-look’ Tottenham at the Riverside 2-1. Today, Gareth Southgate’s side ran riot over a poorly-organized Liverpool at Anfield until they were saved again at the last by the hilarious topsy-turvy antics of Steven Gerrard. Obafemi Martins blew past Manchester United last week to earn a respectable draw for Newcastle at Old Trafford– and some pundits are predicting Carlos Quiroz’s exit will provide many more surprises over the course of the season. Indeed, of the Hallowed Top Four only Chelsea look the real deal for Premier League champion. As for the newly-promoted sides, Hull and Stoke have claimed early victories over highly-touted clubs (inlcuding, lamentably for me anyway, Aston Villa), and last year’s mid-tablers look to be this year’s UEFA Cup candidates. This all bears a vague resemblance to that elusive beast, ‘competitive parity.’
One could of course throw cold water on the idea by pointing out that it’s early days yet. Last year, Manchester United flopped in August only to come roaring back in April, and Arsenal, who looked the team to beat early on before Eduardo’s injury and Adebayor’s haircut, succumbed in January to the ravages of ‘depth.’ It’s all down to depth of course — the more benched superstars you have mumbling to News of the World about ‘first-team status’ and ‘a possible move in January,’ the better your chances of sustaining a title challenge, or at least nicking a Champions League spot. Depth comes courtesy of money, which is reinforced by winning (TV rights for Champions League, more popularity, more merch etc. etc.), a cycle that has kept the same four massively wealthy clubs top of the league every year.
However, like the FA Cup last year, statistical likelihood demands a little aberration now and then. Liverpool’s lack of organization could be exposed, even with Mascherano’s return from Beijing; Arsenal could continue to struggle in early days as Nasri finds his legs and Walcott transitions to the first team; Manchester United could suffer without their Portuguese Brains and Brawn, Quiroz and Ronaldo, the latter at least in the opening stages; and against all evidence, Scolari may not adjust well to the Premier League. Big ifs, but not entirely out the realm of the possible, or, based on early results, the probable.
Furthering this ludicrous scenario, one bad year for the reigning order could crack the door open for challengers via Champions League money and television rights. And who knows? I could replace Shinawatra Thaksin as owner of Manchester City and be crowned King of Siam. But outrageous improbabilities are the spice of life, and even if normal service resumes by December you can still enjoy for now the early stutters and the delicious possibilities they herald.