Top four open to new members
Premier League's elite not set in stone, writes Paul Wilson
The top four play each other over the next couple of days. The new top four, that is. The top four that is no longer set in stone but admitted a new member last season.
If Manchester City have their way there will be another realignment at the end of this season, a more likely prospect at this stage than Liverpool making a spirited recovery to restore the old order, but if the definition of top four is the quartet of clubs in the Champions League then this is the time that should tell us more than most about where the true strength of English football lies.
That has never been particularly difficult to establish in the past, for a composite team of the top four would usually have been a carve-up between Manchester United and Chelsea, with perhaps a Steven Gerrard here or a Cesc Fabregas there to represent the best of the rest.
But United have not been impressive, and shoo-in selections such as Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand have either been injured, distracted or below par. Chelsea seem to be in an even more shocking decline. Partly they are paying the price for shipping out reliable cover players such as Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Joe Cole to reduce the wage bill then finding the squad not large enough to cope with key players getting injured, though that alone seems an inadequate explanation for such a complete loss of nerve. Whatever the reason for Chelsea's crisis of confidence, it would be hard to argue that players of the quality of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry, automatic choices before, have done anything to deserve inclusion in a top-four form team for the first half of this season, even if injuries have not helped.
Chelsea might supply only Petr Cech and Ashley Cole to such a team, and United might offer just Nemanja Vidic, mainly because Spurs and Chelsea keep changing their centre-backs and Arsenal's pair have been the side's weak link all season.
So how might a top-four form team look? It would need to feature Fabregas and Rafael van der Vaart, because they are the other two in the running for player of the year. It would have Gareth Bale on one wing and Samir Nasri on the other, and it could easily feature Luka Modric and Jermain Defoe as well, though Dimitar Berbatov possibly deserves one of the striking positions. Not only is he the league's leading scorer, he is the only player from a top-four team in the top five.
Michael Essien deserves a look-in somewhere too. This disrupted season has not been one of his best, but you would have to be bending over backwards to favour Arsenal or Spurs to select Alex Song or Tom Huddlestone instead. So, giving the creaking Manchester United centre-back partnership the nod over Chelsea's even more injury prone pair, a diplomatic selection might read: Cech; Sagna, Vidic, Ferdinand, Cole; Nasri, Fabregas, Essien, Bale; Van der Vaart, Berbatov.
Diplomatic because it gives Arsenal, Chelsea and United three representatives each, and Spurs the remaining two. But if you wished to favour Defoe over Berbatov, have Modric instead of Essien and maybe even bring in William Gallas at centre-half, and plenty might, you could tip the balance towards north London without even finding a place for Song or Jack Wilshere.
The point is that one could, if pushed, select a credible form team of the first half of the season just from the ranks of Arsenal and Tottenham, whereas it would be much more difficult to do the same were the choice restricted to Chelsea and United, and this is new.
Chelsea and United spent much of the past couple of seasons arguing with each other about which had the oldest squad. They now seem to be in danger of going over the hill together, even if United are still unbeaten, with Arsenal and Spurs the new young thrusters. "Seem" is the important word in that sentence. At various times Chelsea seemed to be running away with the title and Arsenal losing too many games. Things could change between now and the end of the season. Things could change enormously in the next couple of days, yet form at the moment seems to suggest the top two may not be nailed on, never mind the top four.