Fantasy becoming reality in Premier League shakeup
By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - With two months of a gripping Premier League season left Leicester City are closing on the title and it is not fanciful to suggest that Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Southampton could complete the top four.
The idea of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, or even just two of them, finishing fifth or lower, would have been laughed off as absurd before a ball was kicked in August.
But fantasy has become the new reality in the world's richest soccer league.
Leicester, 5000-1 shots to win the title at the start of the season, need six wins from their last seven matches to guarantee becoming champions of England for the first time.
Tottenham, without a title since 1961, are their nearest challengers and West Ham United, in fifth place level on points with sixth-placed Manchester United, are sniffing a first-ever qualification for the Champions League.
Southampton, who came from two goals down to beat Liverpool on Sunday, are just four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City who are caught in a downward spiral.
Jose Mourinho knows only too well that reputations no longer count for anything in the Premier League.
The man who led Chelsea to the title last season was sacked in December after losing nine of their first 16 games.
"Every club has very good players so I think it's difficult for the top teams in England because of the competitive nature," he had predicted in August after watching the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke City and West Ham sign world class players.
One statistic sums the shift in power this season.
Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Liverpool have a lower combined points total so far than Leicester, West Ham, Southampton, Stoke and West Bromwich Albion (241 to 248).
Many expect normal service to resume next season when Man City will be buoyed by the arrival of Pep Guardiola, Chelsea re-group under a new manager and United could possibly have Mourinho at the Old Trafford helm.
But according to Stoke's manager Mark Hughes, the days when the establishment dominated the top five or six places is over.
"This year isn't a one-off, it will be more prevalent in years to come and I think maybe there has been a changing of the guard somewhat," Hughes, whose side are on course for their highest Premier League finish, was quoted as saying in The Telegraph.
"The middle group have got stronger, there are only so many players that top clubs can really bring into their squad to make them better. You can only fill so many places. There is a lot of talent out there that will want to come to the Premier League."
With a new eye-watering domestic TV contract kicking in next season, a three-year deal with Sky and BT worth 5.13 billion pounds ($7.38 billion), 71 percent higher than the current one, the quality gap is likely to shrink again next season.
Fans around Europe where title races rarely feature more than two clubs, or in France's case these days one, can only watch on in envy at the unpredictability of the Premier League.
No wonder Spanish league president Javier Tebas said recently the Premier League will soon be the 'NBA of football.'
West Ham manager Slaven Bilic, whose 10 million pounds plus signing Dimitri Payet would be a guaranteed starter for any of the traditional elite, agrees.
"Now, it's definitely the place to be. Every single club is in a situation to buy good players."
($1 = 0.6948 pounds)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)