So much money, but meagre margins

ON the same recent Sunday, Arsenal squeezed through to a sadly meagre 1-0 win at home to 10-man Birmingham City, but Chelsea at Anfield thrashed Liverpool 4-1. Just four days after being somewhat fortunate to draw a European Cup tie there 0-0. The previous day Manchester United, with the hugely expensive centre back Rio Ferdinand in flimsy form again, had a narrow 3-2 win at Fulham not without its shocks and surprises. All of which suggests that there will be no true challenge to Chelsea in the Premier League. Other factors suggest that there will be still less of one in the future.

For two convincing reasons. First Chelsea's Russian patron, the billionaire Roman Abramovich, has just sold his major stake in the Sibneft oil company, which nets him an estimated �5 billion. It also means so to speak that he is out from under. The suit being brought against Sibneft by another major Russian company, claiming, in the Virgin Islands of all places, that their 50% stake in a joint deal buying a third company had been craftily reduced to 1%, won't concern him any more. So the demands by the rival company that he disclose all his interests and assets have been conveniently and smoothly avoided.

Secondly, as we have known for sometime, next year will see the end of the monopoly deal between the Premiership and BSkyB television, for all its matches. This because the European Union busybodies now insist that no TV company may control more than 50 per cent of the football rights. We know from the past when the rights were notionally up for grabs and only BSkyB could afford them that this means a very sharp decrease in the money to be paid to the clubs. BSkyB will obviously pay less, and its rivals cannot remotely afford to pay the rates, which Sky have been paying.

The corollary of this is plain enough. The only Premiership club which will not suffer at all is Chelsea: even though you'd think they still had the kind of financial problems they had under Ken Bates as chairman, given the extortionate sums of money they are now charging for match tickets. Abramovich will simply make up the money. A man with three big yachts, a multiplicity of expensive houses and his own jet airliners will hardly feel the expense.

After the crushing 4-1 win at Liverpool, Chelsea's manager, Jose `The Mouth' Mourinho, demanded more respect for his team. Yet how much respect did they deserve in the previous game at Anfield when Liverpool were denied three possible penalties? How much respect did he especially deserve last season when he alleged quite wrongly that during half time at the European match at Nou Camp versus Barcelona, Barca's Dutch manager Frank Rijkaard had gone into the referee's dressing room at half time? It was surely Rijkaard if anyone who deserved respect, first for refusing to lament an abysmal refereeing error in the return game at Chelsea when John Terry so clearly fouled Valdes, the Barcelona keeper, before his team scored their decisive goal. Secondly, when Mourinho jeered at Rijkaard (on his way to winning the Spanish Championship) for his lack of managerial success by comparison with his own. Rijkaard could, in the vernacular, have asked Mourinho to put his non-existent caps on the table, the Dutchman having been a major international star with country and Milan. Mourinho having been no kind of a player at all.

Chelsea's critics, myself among them, have lamented the fact that with so much money spent on so many leading players, so many victories have been meagre in the extreme. 1-0 at promoted Wigan in the Premiership opener. 1-0 at home to Arsenal, thanks to a dismal error by the vulnerable gunners centre back, the Swiss Philippe Senderos. Another narrow victory at Stamford Bridge in the European Cup against a team as unambitious on the night as Anderlecht.

After the Anderlecht game, Mourinho simply mused that he was happy enough with the three points, then even told us that he was proud of the way his team withstood Anderlecht's alleged recovery late in the game. It was hard to believe he was serious.

The 4-1 game indeed saw Chelsea as we should surely see them every week, though their win was compounded by some bad errors in the Liverpool defence. There was a silly early penalty given away by Djimi Traore and a dismal display by the Finnish centre back Sami Hyppia, never the fastest of defenders and turned inside out as an irresistible Didier Drogba came in from the left (on the day) to set up another goal. Subsequently we learn that Hyppia was ill and probably shouldn't have played though he insists he isn't using that as an excuse. What should be stressed is that when a club has as much money to spend as Chelsea, not only can it afford to buy the best players in the world it can also buy excellent players who won't necessarily even be given regular games thereby preventing rival clubs from having them.

Meanwhile, where is the opposition to Chelsea coming from, at least in England? Hardly from Arsenal who looked pitifully laborious against Birmingham City, frustrated time and again by a superlative goalkeeping performance by Maik Taylor, beaten near the end only because a shot by Robin Van Persie was deflected past him off the foot of his own player, Stephen Clemence. True Thierry Henry was absent and Dennis Bergkamp, the irreplaceable brains of the outfit, came on only late in the game. Without the inspirational Dutchman, Arsenal are sadly predictable and often ineffectual; and he insisted to me when I spoke to him recently at the Arsenal training ground that he won't carry on after the season. He has simply, at 36, had enough; the game gets harder and harder. But harsher still for an Arsenal team without his ability to spring surprises.