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Lonely at the top: Chelsea, United rule in England

PARIS (AP) — Revenge, it turns out, is a dish best eaten in front of 41,383 fans at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea captain John Terry rightly feasted on the pleasure while he could.

"It's been hurting, hurting you know inside of me for three years ... seeing Man United lift it season after season," Terry said Sunday upon winning the Premier League at Chelsea's West London home.

"Every single one of us has sat there and watched it," he said, referring to United's string of league triumphs from 2007-09. "Now it's their turn to watch us."

And who's turn will it be next season? Best bet: Chelsea's or United's, yet again. Because the unstated message in Terry's triumphalism is that the top rung of the richest domestic league in soccer is now more than ever very, very exclusive territory, beyond the reach of nearly all other teams.

This season has again proved that in soccer, success tends to follow the money — and United and Chelsea still have way, way more of that than most.

The record 103 Premier League goals that Chelsea scored were not just testimony to manager Carlo Ancelotti's gentle encouragement of attacking soccer — "He leaves it down to us to play our own game," said Terry — but also a gauge of the size of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich's bank balance. It secured the services of four of the league's top 15 goal-scorers this season — Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka.

United is one of the few clubs that can compete against the Russian's wealth. With the means at their disposal, the only real surprise would have been if one of them had not come out on top this season. Which is why, in toasting Chelsea's success, someone should also save some of the champagne for overachievers like Tony Pulis, the manager of Stoke City who kept his modest club in England's top tier for another year, or the stoic Avram Grant, who steered Portsmouth to the FA Cup final even while the club suffered a financial meltdown.

It is no accident that Portsmouth's opponents in that cup match next Saturday will be Chelsea: It takes large sums to finance winning campaigns on multiple fronts.

Nor is lopsidedness only an English problem. Across Europe, the hegemony of the continent's big teams again this season has been striking, perhaps even frightening to those, like UEFA boss Michel Platini, who fear that the yawning disparity between soccer's haves and have-nots has become too large, making competition unfair.

Nowhere does the gap seem more absurd than in Spain, where FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are in a different class from the rest. Valencia, the best of Spain's also-rans, will finish more than 20 points behind the leaders, an embarrassingly huge margin.

In Germany, Bayern Munich has already won its sixth title since 2000. Inter Milan is one match from winning its fifth consecutive Italian title.

In England, only Arsenal has managed to gatecrash Chelsea and United's Premier League party this millennium, winning in 2002 and 2004, before the London club limited the funds it has available for new players by pouring much of its cash into building a new stadium.

Next season, it is hard to see Arsenal improving on third place unless manager Arsene Wenger this summer can recruit decent defenders, a better goalkeeper and a convincing striker to pair with Robin van Persie. Losses to both Chelsea and United this season were among reasons why Arsenal couldn't capitalize when those teams themselves lost to other opponents.

Thanks to the wealth of owner Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, Manchester City certainly has the money to finance another challenge for a Champions League spot next season but not yet the team to snap the Chelsea-United stranglehold at the top. Neither do heavily indebted Liverpool or Tottenham, this season's surprise fourth-place finisher.

So it looks as if Chelsea and United will be lonely at the top again next season, with just themselves for company. Which is just the way they like it.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org