LONDON - No English team has won four successive top-flight titles and unless Manchester United return to their best soon, they are likely to miss out on the chance.
United, champions for the last three seasons, are involved in the most open and unpredictable title race for years, typified by their 1-1 draw at Birmingham City on Saturday when they failed to get the win that would have taken them top.
Arsenal, who could also have inched closer to Chelsea after the leaders had their trip to Hull City postponed, slipped up in the snow of the Emirates where they were held to a 2-2 draw by Everton.
United manager Alex Ferguson, who has taken United to 11 titles and Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who has won three, agree that winning the league in a season full of shocks and surprising results will be harder than ever.
"There is an improvement in the league. You have to assess it that way," said Ferguson. "The general standard has improved."
Wenger said: "Something has deeply changed this season. There are now more teams aspiring to be in the top four - that has completely changed the structure."
Roberto Mancini, the new manager at Manchester City, believes six clubs are in the running for the title.
Twelve points separate the top eight with Chelsea on 45 points from 20 matches and Birmingham eighth with 33 from 21.
This could also be the first season since 2004-05 that the leading final four are not United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea.
"There are five or six clubs that can win the Premier League," Mancini told reporters.
"The league is more competitive because there are many top players in England and, of course, City are a top club."
This campaign appears to be in stark contrast with many recently when the contest was a two or three-horse race.
With just under half the season remaining Chelsea, United and Arsenal again lead the way but have failed to shake off Tottenham Hotspur, City and Aston Villa, with Liverpool and improving Birmingham further behind.
Ferguson summed up how competitive the league has become, expressing his relief at escaping from Birmingham with a draw, a fixture United usually win.
"It's a difficult place to go to at the moment, it's not a bad point (for us)," he said. "It's a tough league, it's not going to be easy.
"Teams like Birmingham have really improved since coming into the division."
City, the world's richest club backed by the billions of owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, added former Arsenal title-winner Patrick Vieira to their squad on Friday and he also believes the title race is wide open.
"Manchester United do not dominate the league like they used to," said the midfielder.
"Look at the league - we have Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and now Manchester City, Tottenham and Aston Villa.
"They have made it really difficult for United to dominate and I strongly believe we are not out of the title race here either."
Chelsea are the bookmakers' favourites but only a brave man would place a huge wager on the outcome.comments