Tight league title race treat for fans

It may have happened before, but I’m racking my brains to remember when. We’re nearly at the turn of the year and no fewer than five candidates — yes, that’s a quarter of the Barclays Premier League — are harboring plausible hopes of the title.

The top of the English game isn’t usually this competitive so let’s hope the first half of 2013-14 proves a sign of things to come. And, while Manchester United supporters might not agree, I find it refreshing to look at the League table and see the champions in eighth place.

Not that I’m leaving David Moyes’s men out of the title running. On the season’s eve, I backed United to retain the familiar honor won in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season and the margin that currently separates them from leaders Arsenal — 10 points — allows me to defer an admission of error. It can be closed over the remaining 22 games.

It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. And it helps to make the title race fascinating, never a week passing without at least one game that can be seen as key to its destiny. In Spain — though Atletico Madrid’s challenge to the big two keeps excitement high — 20 points separate first from eighth. In Germany it’s 21 and in Italy 23. England, at last, is showing that the elite need not be exclusive.

To the four that qualified for this season’s UEFA Champions League — United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal — can be added a Liverpool team impressively revived by Brendan Rodgers and inspired by Luis Suarez. That’s the five. And Everton might reasonably argue that, since they’ve lost only one of 16 outings under Roberto Martinez, it should be a list of six.

Although Newcastle’s squad is unlikely to permit a finish above today’s sixth place, that would be enough of an achievement by Alan Pardew and his players. And, with Tottenham in a state of chaos following the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas, even their most ardent fans are not dreaming of a late-spring encounter with champagne spray and an open-top bus.

The sudden decline of Spurs, after it had initially seemed Villas-Boas had brilliantly fashioned a top side from the group of players purchased with the $135 million paid by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale, leaves Arsenal and Chelsea to conduct the London race to be champions, and the capital’s vast soccer tribe can hardly wait for those clubs to collide at the Emirates Stadium on Monday.

It’s the final fixture of the weekend round that begins with Liverpool taking on Cardiff — who by Saturday could be without coach Malky Mackay, the target of one jibe too many from owner Vincent Tan — at Anfield and continues with United at home to West Ham, and City at Fulham, all games that could increase the pressure from the north on Arsenal and Chelsea as they prepare to take points off each other.

With many people believing that City established themselves as favorites by beating Arsenal 6-3 in that sensational trading of blows at the Etihad last weekend, the Monday game is not the biggest of the season so far. But it feels that way in London because the loser — if there is one — will concede momentum as much as points.

On the one hand, Arsene Wenger remains defiant that his latest Arsenal team, with Mesut Ozil added to the technical array in midfield, can beat the top sides, as well as the rest, and last the course. On the other is Jose Mourinho, the man with the Midas touch whom Chelsea assumed would restore to the club the domestic ascendancy he brought upon arrival from Porto in 2004.

But Mourinho hadn’t been infallible in the face of Barcelona when with Real Madrid — and once again even he is finding it tough at the top, even though Chelsea are so close to Arsenal they can overtake them by winning at the Emirates. The stakes are even higher for the home team, who beat Liverpool at the Emirates but have already lost twice in Manchester, raising a suspicion that some of the tougher tasks may be beyond them.

It promises, if the pattern of the season is maintained — City vs. Arsenal underlined the tendency for top clubs almost to abandon prudence in favor of entertainment when they meet — to be a great game. Eden Hazard is turning into the outstanding talent his billing promised and Andre Schurrle is having a fine first season as Mourinho seeks the blend of results and flair that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich craves.

Meanwhile Arsenal, since Ozil came, have performed with the panache of old, especially on their own ground. So stand by for Christmas decorations as well as an event of significance. If results go as expected — a tie at the Emirates and wins for Liverpool and the Manchester pair — it will be even tighter at the top as we enter the crowded festive program and that will truly be something for the Premier League to celebrate.