A combination of Eddie Howe's dedication, Maxim Demin's money and partnerships all over the pitch have achieved what looked utterly impossible...
He's the driver of the banter bus who's the most likely man in football to tell you the price of his watch. But is Robbie Savage actually just a vulnerable puppy in a harsh world?
Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the land, football writers wrestled with the temptation to lard their prose with festive references. Presents, crackers, gifts, donkeys ... the potential is literally quite considerable. But not here. No. We at the Diary take ourselves, and yourselves, and everyotherselves far too seriously for such cheap and easy fare. Welcome to St Stephen's Diary, readers, guaranteed a a tinsel-free zone.
To the football. Despite what you might be thinking, the real story of the weekend was not Liverpool's defeat at the hands of Manchester City. It would be both pleasant and appropriate, at this point, to be allowed to talk about what was a pretty decent game of football. To award praise to Liverpool for their attacking resolve, to likewise speak highly of Manchester City's resilience and endeavour. But no. Brendan Rodgers doesn't want people to say nice things about his team. Brendan Rodgers doesn't want people to look back on the game with fondness. Brendan Rodgers wants everybody to talk about the referee. So let's talk about the referee.
The referee, Lee Mason, wasn't very good, and might have got a few big decisions wrong. Rodgers, who was quite upset by this, noted that Mason was born in Bolton, "Greater Manchester". Picking over the bones of decisions is a staggeringly dull business, so we'll just note that every word wasted on attacking or defending Mason's integrity is one word less devoted to other issues arising, such as whether any football side can both challenge for a title and involve Martin Skrtel (born in Eccles), or precisely what Simon Mignolet (born in Droylsden) thought he was up to. Or, more generally, the advisability of going to an abattoir like the City of Manchester stadium at a moment when they are lacking their most brutal, lethal striker, and pouring forward at every opportunity. It's presumably not permitted for the manager of Liverpool to take inspiration from Alex Ferguson, but the evil genius himself could not have played it better.
(By the by, Luis Suarez, on the off-chance you're reading, some advice. No, not about that, we know you couldn't care less about that. But you've acquired this knack of looking like you're diving even when you are being fouled. It's the arms, with the waving, and the face, with the shrieking, and the general aura of entitled indignation with which you collapse and thrash about. It's very funny, but it might not be doing you any favours. Less is more, Luis. Less is more.)
That wasn't the story. Nor was the story of the weekend the tightening of the bottom half of the table. Eight flimsy, threadbare points now separate Stoke City in tenth from Sunderland at the bottom, and one thing is clear: everybody should sack their manager immediately. Four teams in the bottom eleven have flushed the dugout since the start of the season, and those four teams picked up ten points. Seven have so far stuck with their man, and they didn't manage a single point between them. You can't argue with the science. The Premier League: a great advert for unemployment.
(By the by, Crystal Palace are out of the bottom three and Dwight Gayle is scoring last-minute exclamation marks. Truly, Tony Pulis is clearly the greatest manager in the history of football.)
But that wasn't the story. Nor was it Manchester United staring ignominy in the face, before remembering how these things are supposed to go and scrapping their way to an away win that was both encouraging, in that it demonstrated both a sense of character and the ability to turn that strength of character into competent attacking football, and concerning, in that they defended like drunk mannequins. Nor was it Tim Sherwood's ongoing experiments with selection-by-tombola, or Arsenal's continuing chirpiness. It wasn't even Roberto Martinez's Everton juddering to a sudden halt, ruining everybody's accumulators, and allowing David Moyes a week off from lazy and half-baked comparisons.
No, the story was Chelsea, who were dull. A week ago, Jose Mourinho decided that he'd had enough of bringing pleasure, and causing fun, and generally allowing the opposition to score goals. Plenty of that nonsense, thank you very much. So he announced to the world that Chelsea, his Chelsea, his new Chelsea, would kill the profligate calf on the altar of pragmatism, smear themselves in the blood, and play like used cat litter for the rest of the season. Or words to that effect.
On Monday night, new and super-improved Arsenal were made to look like old and not-particularly-good Arsenal, as Chelsea eased to a disappointingly comfortable 0-0. Then, yesterday, a routine 1-0 home win over Swansea and a second clean sheet in a row. Yes, their strikers are still rubbish, but where Arsenal and Manchester City are first and second after playing quite well, Chelsea are third having only just worked out what they need to be doing with their squad. Things are getting ominous. He's even started on Arsene Wenger with a nigh-on sexual glint in his eye, providing a nostalgic, Proustian rush comparable only to hearing an old version of the Hollyoaks theme tune.
What Jose wants, Jose gets, even if the price is the contempt and disdain of the neutral, and a renewal of his reputation for behaving like a complete and utter Scrooge. Ah, dammit!
Andi Thomas and Alexander Netherton