The “Big Four” shrinks to the “Big Three” as Arsenal and Villa battle over the last Champions League place

Comment & analysis round-up

Quote of the day: “Certainly, two years ago we wouldn’t have been able to cope with going two goals behind, probably to anyone, let alone a side of the quality of Arsenal. But the team has made considerable progress and while we need to add the consistency that these top teams have, I think it’s a credit to the league that at least we’re having a go. I thought we were absolutely outstanding in the first half and could have been four or five goals in front, and that’s no exaggeration, before they scored. I gave the shortest team talk ever at half-time. I just said, ‘You were brilliant.’ It was an exceptional performance, we deserved what we got. I could hardly have been more pleased with our performance.” – Martin O’Neill.

Runner-up: “He [Michael Ballack] did lift an arm and slap him in the face, right in front of the referee. Mr Styles gets paid to referee a football match and if he doesn’t think a slap in the face is worthy of a red card then so be it. It was right in front of me, right in front of him. I don’t know the rules any more when it comes to that sort of thing. I would never call for anybody to be sent off. Ballack is a world-class player and I don’t know what irritated him enough to slap my player in the face but it might have helped us if we were playing against 10 men.” – Tony Mowbray.

Today’s overview: As the holiday season rolls on the backpages remain on the light side, with Aston Villa’s draw with Arsenal grabbing most of the headlines as the race for fourth spot hots up.

Martin Lipton offers the most Villa-biased opinion of the day, writing “You’re Right, Arsene, there are only four teams good enough to win the league. The trouble is that Arsenal are not one of them and only the churlish would deny that Villa increasingly have what it takes.”

A more pragmatic approach is provided by Kevin McCarra, who is quick to temper any claims that Villa are now stronger than the Gunners writing “it is absurdly premature to assume that these clubs have swapped places to any lasting extent but attitudes are ­changing.” The “Big Four” has now been replaced by the “Big Three” according to Richard Williams with “Arsenal and Villa will be spending the rest of the season fighting over the last Champions League place.”

Focusing on Gunners, Henry Winter makes it clear that “these are troubled times for Arsenal. Uncertainty stalks the board-room and the dressing-room increasingly resembles an Agatha Christie film with stars continually disappearing.”

On Chelsea’s defeat of West Brom this victory may be remembered as the moment when [Scolari] regained his mojo” particularly for his decision to drop Deco in favour of Didier Drogba.

Oliver Kay reports on United’s win at Stoke concluding “it was one of those games – it is one of those grounds – where the away team would have been happy to get out alive, or at very least unblemished.” However Graham Poll sticks the knife into Sir Alex’s team, particularly Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, in an article headlined “referees are blind to the misbehaving stars of Manchester United.”

On the transfer front, £15 million according to

Discussing his picture of 2008, Rob Hughes recalls the “Spanish players tossing their 70-year-old coach in the air in the triumph at Euro 2008. Five, six times they elevated Luis Aragones, but always there were many careful hands treating their ‘Mister’ like porcelain.”

And lastly, Jenny Percival reports that football is finally going public in a battle against homophobia as the FA Gear up to release a new video “in cinemas, on TV and in stadiums in an attempt to rid terraces and pitches of homophobic chants and slurs… It is hoped that up to a dozen players, including David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, David James, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole and Cristiano Ronaldo, will be persuaded to take part.”