The Premier League is a local affair once more.
As the mid-point of the programme approaches no one can pretend that this is a gripping world tournament that happens to be held in England. It is not such a centre of excellence at present but there is an abundance of interest now prominent clubs have stopped looking untouchable.
The domestic front is bound to catch the eye all the more when both Manchester clubs have already been knocked out of the Champions League. Any excuse would have been laughable when, for instance, Otelul Galati were the only club United could beat in their group. So far as City were concerned we should not settle for the excuse that the Champions League was new to them.
Roberto Mancini's squad does, after all, contain men of experience whose worth was so established that great sums were spent on them. We should be glad, nonetheless, that plans have gone awry for the time being. City may still head the table, but a lead on mere goal difference means there is much work to be done before opponents feel intimidated all over again.
The team were held to a goalless draw by West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Boxing Day, with the adept tactician Roy Hodgson utilising a 4-4-2 structure so rigid that it caged the visitors. It still came as a little surprise that City, for the first time this season, were unable to score in the League. West Brom succeeded in curbing David Silva to a certain extent and other clubs will take note.
It would be diplomatic to say that the Premier League is in transition rather than decline, but there is also truth to that claim. Tottenham Hotspur, for instance, have started to perform as if convinced of their own excellence. The signing of the midfielder Scott Parker, who was almost 31 when the club bought him from West Ham United for £5m, has been a coup since he structures Spurs' play.
In view of the fact that Harry Redknapp is expected to become the England manager following the Euro 2012 finals, there would be an almighty leaving do at White Hart Lane if the title had been clinched. That still looks a little implausible.
Tottenham, for instance, last beat Chelsea in the spring of 2010 and have not had a win over Manchester United since May 2001. The necessary drive and ambition are still to be demonstrated at the critical moment. If a break with the past is feasible, though, it will be because the depth of Redknapp's squad is more impressive than that of his predecessors.
We are in strange and bracing times. No one is to be counted upon, although Manchester City may have it in them to regroup and reel off another long series of wins. The element of surprise has been great so far, with United typifying the volatility best. By October, they had devastated Arsenal 8‑2 at home and also been swamped 6‑1 there by City.
Mancini, in theory, should have the means to set his team on another surge in the league. Attitude may count for much. He is correct in thinking that the festive programme is particularly severe on City because of the lack of recovery time, but his public complaint about that can only raise spirits at other clubs.
If standards have dipped a little in the Premier League, there is a benefit in the competitiveness that ensues. Only four points separate Chelsea, in fourth, from Newcastle United in seventh. Stoke City, one place farther down the table, go on prospering and are not so high-handed as to see their Europa League campaign as anything other than an adventure. They have gone through to the knockout phase at the expense of Dynamo Kyiv.
Perhaps it is clubs without affectation, such as Stoke, who take the greatest joy from the game. Other managers live in a different environment. At Chelsea, André Villas‑Boas is charged with surreptitiously rebuilding the side while maintaining the pretence that the club is as mighty as usual. His capabilities were established with the wonders achieved at Porto and progress in the Champions League ought to buy him the patience he deserves.
Like Chelsea, Arsenal, with less fuss, also showed their worth by coming through their Champions League group. All the same, Arsène Wenger, so dependent on Robin van Persie's goals, has a challenge ahead to ensure that they qualify again for the tournament. Unlike United and City, his club and Chelsea can at least aspire to return as Champions League holders.
Hopes abound in the Premier League. Liverpool are not far from the top four despite the lack of impact from Andy Carroll to date. Sunderland are the only club to have sacked their manager so far in this campaign, but the advent of Martin O'Neill in place of Steve Bruce has had impact in these early days.
This is not a vintage Premier League, but it is appealing in a variety of ways. Paul Lambert's astuteness sees Norwich City in mid-table and excellence is far from being the preserve of the glamorous names. Michel Vorm's goalkeeping for Swansea City has, for instance, been superb. Football in this country is far from outdoing the rest of the world, but it will go on intriguing and tantalising us.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Andrew Brannan
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