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Title contenders are imperfectly matched

If Crystal Palace can upend Everton at Goodison Park and Sunderland can march into Manchester City's lair and snatch a point (after coming within a hair's breadth of winning) why shouldn't Norwich beat Liverpool today, or West Brom give City the Sunderland treatment tomorrow night?

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard celebrates last week's win over title rivals Manchester City, Photograph: EPA
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard celebrates last week's win over title rivals Manchester City, Photograph: EPA

As run-ins go, this year's Premier League promises to be on the unpredictable side. The cheerleaders who make sure they say "Barclays" before "Premier League" at least once every 10 minutes and remind you that nowhere else in the history of mankind has a spectacle like this been witnessed will chalk it up to an "unparalleled" strength in depth.

European performances - and, frankly, your own eyes - suggest otherwise. But that doesn't matter. It's exciting, not because the three at the top are outstanding (clearly, they're not) but because they are growing teams, trying to transition to the next level.

Jose Mourinho has complained - sometimes openly, sometimes not - about his strikers all season. Previously, he moaned about his midfield, until Nemanja Matic showed up. Chelsea are an unbalanced side that - uncharacteristically for a Mourinho team - reap less than they sow.

Liverpool have surpassed all expectations, but, again, you know this is not what Brendan Rodgers envisaged. Both of his starting centre-backs were openly for sale last summer and his left-back is a youth product so under-appreciated he boasts all of three Under-21 caps.

Apart from Simon Mignolet and, when fit, Mamadou Sakho, last summer's reinforcements have contributed little: 517 minutes of game time for Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, who cost a combined £15 million, are the epitome of this.

As for Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini and the man who hired him, director of football Txitxi Beguiristain, were given carte blanche in the close season last year and still somehow managed to put together a top-heavy squad, one where it takes one injury (to Matija Nastasic) to turn Martin Demichelis into a week in, week out starter.

City may play the best football in the league (though Liverpool might argue with that) and may have been unlucky at times, but a lot of their situation is of their own making, which - after another summer net spend approaching £100m - must be tough to stomach.

The point is all three title contenders are works in progress, unfinished projects. This season the end result has been an engrossing title race, albeit one brought about not by their strengths, but by their weaknesses, some inherited and some the fruit of poor decisions.

Andrea Pirlo's autobiography, recently released on these shores via BackPage Press, raised more than a few eyebrows when it came out in Italy and not for the reasons you might expect.

Italians thought they knew Pirlo, the gifted passer who really only came into his own once Carlo Ancelotti transformed him from a "number 10" into a deep-lying playmaker (curiously, Ancelotti won't take credit for the idea, saying it was Pirlo who suggested it) More importantly, he was the guy who rarely spoke, avoided controversy and kept a low profile, possibly because he was a bit dull. The book reveals a different Pirlo: a guy who understood the media game and figured it was best to play by the rules, sticking to anodyne statements and, at times, outright lies. He trotted out boring post-match quotes while looking as if it pained him to be speaking in public.

He also does a neat 180-degree turn on how many perceive transfer gossip. Clubs insist it's somewhere between fantasies and speculation; Pirlo writes that, at least in his case, many of the rumours have been true, but he would hide behind the rote "I'm happy where I am" statements while letting his team issue blanket denials.

You always suspected there was a lot more to him and the book confirms it. Pirlo figured out early on that his interests were best served by keeping a certain public image. It may well have had a lot to do with the fact his father is a steel magnate of the kind who keeps his immense wealth private.

Now that Pirlo is 34 and has a couple of Champions League crowns and a World Cup under his belt he can let loose. And show the man under the beard: cool, bright, funny, outspoken. In a sense, Pirlo's book is antithetical to the other pan-European publishing success of the year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's auto-biography. With the latter, you expect a character and he delivers, adding detail to familiar tales ranging from the outrageous - impersonating a police officer, stealing bikes, the training ground fight with Oguchi Onyewu - to the more cerebral, such as the mindset of the second-generation immigrant.

With Pirlo it all feels new and fresh, as if you're being introduced to a new character. He was there all along, of course, but it's only now that we're afforded a peek.

Yaya Toure suggested on the BBC's Football Focus yesterday that African players tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to receiving public recognition. He may have been speaking obliquely about the PFA Footballer of the Year shortlist - Toure is on it but Luis Suarez appears a nailed-on choice - but more generally he was talking about the type of stars the media promote.

He's probably correct, but it strikes me Toure has been disadvantaged more by typecasting than racial prejudice. Toure is tall, he's strong, he's African, he must be a holding midfielder in the Claude Makelele mold. That's how Barcelona saw him, that's how Manchester City viewed him when he first arrived. And when he showed that he also had uncommon skills, that instantly meant something else: he must be lazy because he didn't do it all the time.

Had Yaya Toure been born in Birmingham instead of Bouake, the odds are he'd be a Steven Gerrard type. He would have been hyped from an early age, ended up at a massive club by his 20th birthday and become England captain in mid-20s.

His life would have taken a different path. He would have reached a club of Barcelona's magnitude before his 24th birthday and would have started more than the barely 50% of games he did at the Camp Nou. And he would have been a household name a long time ago.

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