High-flying Leeds, Villa suggest this Premier League title race could be the best one ever

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BIRMINGHAM, England -- As Patrick Bamford curled in a stunning left-foot shot to seal a 19-minute hat-trick and put Leeds United 3-0 up against Aston Villa, the craziest season in Premier League history took another remarkable twist.

The super clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United wanted to carve up the Premier League landscape with their audacious, and failed, Project Big Picture plan, but Leeds are another of those famous old clubs who are biting back and showing that they are ready to fight every inch of the way to ensure that England's top-flight never becomes a closed shop to all but the biggest, richest and most powerful.

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And they hammered out that message at Villa thanks to goals scored by a player who had been chewed up and spat out by the Premier League so many times that he deserves credit for bouncing back with Leeds.

Bamford, the former Chelsea youngster who had scored just one goal during his previous attempts to prove himself in the Premier League with five different clubs (Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Burnley, Middlesbrough and Norwich City), had taken his tally for the season to six goals for Marcelo Bielsa's team -- level with Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and one behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Son Heung-Min.

But Bamford's sudden transformation into a Premier League hot-shot at the age of 27 is a mere sub-plot in the story of this season so far.

If it continues like this, we are on course for the most open Premier League season for a quarter of a century, and Leeds are set to be a central character in the story.

Leeds, having ended the club's 16-year Premier League exile by winning promotion from the EFL Championship last season, are now third in the top-flight after this victory at Villa Park.

Their win denied Villa, who had won four out of four until this game, the chance to claim top spot, just three months after avoiding relegation on the back of a late surge of form at the end of the coronavirus-affected 2019-20 season.

So after failing to grasp the chance to go top, Villa must now sit back and watch Everton attempt to open up a three-point lead with a win at Southampton on Sunday.

Yes, the Premier League top three in late-October is Everton, Villa and Leeds. Leicester City are also in the shake-up for the top four, as are Wolverhampton Wanderers. Liverpool are fourth and still the favourites to finish the season as champions, but not since the mid-1990s have we seen a Premier League campaign with so many unfamiliar names at the top end of the table.

When Manchester United won the first Premier League title in 1992-93, Villa finished as runners-up with Norwich in third. Blackburn came fourth, one place ahead of Queens Park Rangers.

A year later, Blackburn and Newcastle finished second and third respectively behind champions United, with Leeds fifth and Wimbledon sixth.

Nottingham Forest finished third in 1994-95, when Blackburn pipped United to the title, but since those heady days of a wide-open competition, the heavyweights have tended to dominate the top four, with only Newcastle, Everton, Leeds and Leicester able to upset the hierarchy in the years since.

But could the 2020-21 season, made even stranger by the absence of fans due to the pandemic, end up as a throwback to the Nineties, when every club had a shot at breaking into the top four?

Everton have laid a marker down with their unbeaten start under Carlo Ancelotti and the Merseyside club are strong contenders to finish in the top four due to the proven quality of their manager and a squad enhanced by players such as James Rodriguez and Allan.

But Villa and Leeds both showed in this game that they have the players to sustain a top six push at least.

Villa, who hammered Liverpool 7-2 earlier this season, were well beaten in the end, but Jack Grealish had a shot cleared off the line and was denied a first-half penalty before he almost scored a contender for goal of the season, with a long, mazy run, prior to Bamford's 55th-minute opener.

Grealish, Chelsea loanee Ross Barkley, striker Ollie Watkins and former Arsenal goalkeeper Emi Martinez are players capable of making a difference against any team and they will ensure that Villa bounce back from this defeat.

As for Leeds, they are thriving under Marcelo Bielsa in their first Premier League season since 2003-04 and they won this game without injured midfielder Kalvin Phillips.

Bamford's contribution with his goals was obvious, but former NYCFC winger Jack Harrison -- on loan at Leeds from Manchester City -- was outstanding, while goalkeeper Illan Meslier also played a big part in his team's victory.

Leeds are exciting to watch and a nightmare to play against with their energetic pressing game.

Whether they can sustain the pace all season is a big question that they must answer, but Leeds are a team that will cause problems for all their opponents this year.

The same applies to Everton, Villa, Leicester and Wolves.

And in a season when all of the so-called Big Six have made unconvincing starts, the resurgent clubs with proud histories could be ready to take advantage and make it the best Premier League season yet.