The proverbial one-horse title race does nobody in football any favours: fans are bored by predictable results, managers end up scrapping over tin-pot cups and the team topping the football pyramid festers through lack of stiff competition.
Just as Man Utd have, mercifully, emerged to challenge Chelsea in real life (whatever that is), Championship Manager has been putting in the hours on the training pitch to give Football Manager a credible opponent this season. And with LMA Manager 2007 proving to be a stagnant reworking of last year's outing, while FIFA Manager 07 is yet to emerge from the dark recesses of EA's dugout, CM 2007 is also the only serious alternative to FM's transfer market leader.
But, boy, is it serious.
Championship Manager is not a game to be taken lightly, even it does provide plenty of smiles. It shares its rival's love of stats and slavish attention to realism. The database of players is undoubtedly smaller than FM's, as is the roster of playable leagues, but there's still more than enough signings to snap up and sleeping giants to kick out of bed to keep you busy. What's more, CM can be almost as deliciously frustrating as it's derby rival, thanks to honest gameplay that demands you work with the sometimes-limited resources at your disposal to eke out a successful career. That said, for all the convergence in game styles, CM is finally starting to show signs of breaking away from 'FM-clone' accusations by introducing more features that are unique, or at least uniquely delivered. In other words, a series that was reborn as a relatively soulless attempt to mimic CM when Eidos and FM-creators SI split is starting to come of age.
Aptly, CM is starting to lose the unsightly blemishes that characterised it's developing years, due to slightly smarter graphics that provide a noticeable improvement on last season's outing. Admittedly, though, the game is still in desperate need of a visual overhaul if it's to achieve the professional, glossy look of its key rival. CM has also grown up to include an international management option, a dimension of play that was only previously available as a patch for CM 2006. While most dugout dabblers simply use the national option as a means of collecting personal kudos and filling in a few blanks in the footballing calendar, this is a welcome - if overdue - addition. National coaching also introduces a neat option that enables you to ask club managers for an assessment of squad members with a view to giving them a cap. It's a tidy way of mimicking the real world phone calls that must take place when Steve Maclaren comes knocking. And a great way of spying on potential signings for your own team too.
Other additions to the game will appeal to hardcore players. The inclusion of the Conference North and South leagues is a welcome one for those bosses who prefer to earn their managerial spurs before landing a top job and splashing cash like Roman Abramovich on transfer deadline day. Speaking of the one-man football empire, the club benefactor option, which gives you a cash boost, is in the team to temper the hardcore tweaks and assist those who want glamour and glory ahead of guts and goal-droughts.
The other notable hardcore addition is a welcome signpost for the future of a series, ProZone. This real-life analysis tool has been used to great effect by a string of top clubs, and is even endorsed by Mike Baldwin lookalike Stevie Mac himself. It's a smart, if somewhat embryonic, tactical device that enables you to replay matches and break down games to see exactly how individuals have performed. It's an added layer of analytical depth with bags of promise that gives up so much information that stats nerds could well drown in their own appreciative spittle once they get their hands on it. Even if you don't want to lose your life to a neat, graphical representation of Macclesfield's first-half throw-ins, you can take titbits from the tool that will help you become a better manager. As an addition to the raw stats and commentary of the isometric match engine, it means, for instance, that you can see exactly where and how passes went astray, before you haul offending players off for a dressing down.
Luckily, your chances to have a pop at players - or indeed mollycoddle them - have been upped with the introduction of team-talks before, during and after games. At last! These go a little deeper than Football Manager's, enabling you to explicitly select your rants and serenades from a range of preset options that reflect the quality of your opponents and the current score. There are other, more subtle, improvements to trumpet too, such as the improved news stories and tweaked match engine - they show CM is putting it's house in order as well as trying to push in new directions...
Looking ahead, us virtual managers have to hope the process of refining the existing CM content and adding more features that smack of individuality continues. After all, there's still some way to go before CM topples FM, which continues to tweak an impressively solid base with tasty new features with every passing season. In the meantime, Championship Manager 2007 is a playable and realistic game that can whip along at a heart-warming pace when you need to bypass some meaningless fixtures and provide just enough depth for you to become engrossed when you come over all statistical.
Overall, CM 2007 represents a step forward for a maturing series that is starting to provide genuine competition for Football Manager. It's still a second best management game, but for bosses looking to land a gaming double, CM and FM are the league and FA Cup pairing you should be gunning for.