LONDON — THE MOST fascinating Premier League title chase ever reached the half-way stage on Boxing Day.

It is usually a two-horse race and could still be that way but the domination of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United faces a realistic challenge from Aston Villa whose manager, Martin O’Neill, is fighting a losing battle trying to play down his team’s chances.

Villa have broken into the elite league within the Premier League and show signs of being able to stay at English football’s altitude level because the Big Four are not firing on all cylinders.

Credit to Liverpool for setting the pace with their leading striker Fernando Torres injured for most of the season. The Reds are solid rather than spectacular and their captain Steven Gerrard maintains his wonderful habit of scoring crucial goals when needed most.

But Robbie Keane has yet to claim a regular place since his £20 million transfer from Tottenham and incredibly Liverpool have been booed off the pitch by their fans despite being top of the Premier League.

Luiz Felipe Scolari has not made Chelsea the Brazilian Barcelona owner Roman Abramovich hoped. Their home form has been poor and too many stories of unrest behind the scenes are coming out of Stamford Bridge for it to be just mischief making, as the club would like us to believe.

The ghost of Jose Mourinho remains and inevitably, after bad results, comparisons between Scolari and the Portuguese are made. Mourinho’s way was not always pretty but it was successful and perhaps the ultimate entertainment is what you do rather than how you do it.

Arsenal will be without Cesc Fabregas for most of the season, the Gunners’ captain sidelined with a knee injury. Arsene Wenger seems to treat the club’s transfer kitty like his own personal savings but it is essential an experienced midfield replacement is brought in during the January transfer window.

Club world champions United have played two games less than their rivals and traditionally improve as the season progresses. Dimitar Berbatov has yet to convince the Old Trafford faithful he was worth the £30 million paid to Tottenham but United have still looked more solid than their rivals.

Villa, meanwhile, have kept pace with the Premier League heavyweights and if they are fortunate with injuries and suspensions they have what it takes to last the pace even though O’Neill’s response, when asked by a television reporter if his side could win the title, was to ask if he’d been drinking.

Brad Friedel may be 37 but is playing as well if not better than any other goalkeeper in England.

Center-half Martin Laursen may not have the profile of John Terry or Rio Ferdinand but the Dane has been an inspirational figure at the back for Villa.

In attack Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor have been revelations with O’Neill searching for superlatives to describe some of Young’s recent performances.

Add Gareth Barry, James Milner and Stiliyan Pertov to the mix and you have a team bursting with strength and skill, power and pace.

O’Neill’s verdict is: “I wouldn’t want us to start thinking we were better than we are.”

We shall soon find out just how good Villa are and how big a threat they will be.

But the signs are that the Premier powerhouses will not have things their own way and Villa are showing they can and will at least finish in the top four.

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I CAN predict with absolute confidence that the following intro (as we say in the trade) will appear, more or less, on the back pages of English newspapers on Monday morning: “. . . (insert name of manager) blasted . . . (insert name of the referee) for sending off . . . (insert player’s name) in yesterday’s game.”

With equal confidence I will say that several referees will be told by managers that they got a number of crucial decisions wrong — by startling coincidence all these decisions would have gone against these managers’ team. Any controversial calls that went in their favor will be conveniently overlooked.

It is becoming boring and predictable that managers and players will criticize the referee after a match. The weakness in their argument is that most of the time they are attempting to defend the indefensible.

Chelsea and England captain John Terry was shown the red card by referee by Phil Dowd for a reckless challenge on Everton’s Leon Osman last Monday. The media and TV pundits were virtually unanimous in saying that Dowd’s decision was correct as Terry’s attempt to win the ball saw him catch his opponent at speed with no control over the tackle.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Chelsea manager, who has gone from “I never criticize referees” to being a serial critic of match officials, was so angry with Dowd he refused to speak to the media after the game.

Obviously had Terry been the victim of the same challenge the Brazilian would have defended the opponent. And the cow jumped over the moon . . .

At halftime Scolari had accused Dowd of being afraid of Everton, a statement not worthy of a man who led Brazil to World Cup success in 2002.

A couple of days earlier Howard Webb sent off Emmanuel Adebayor for two yellow card offenses against Liverpool. Again most neutrals believed Webb got it right but Arsene Wenger was beside himself with rage.

There is so much to admire about the Frenchman but his refusal to accept his players can ever stray the wrong side of the football laws is tiresome.

It is probably a hope of naive optimism but it would be wonderful if the 20 Premier League managers followed the lead of the 12 men in charge of Scottish Premier League teams who have agreed collectively to refrain from commenting on referee’s performances and confine themselves to providing analysis of the game just played.

The agreement will continue until the end of the season, when a review will take place.

I suspect that managers in England have so much power and influence no one will be brave enough to suggest they concentrate on talking about the game and not sounding off about how wrong the referee was when he was actually right.

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