Until last night Tesco, Albion’s Lord of the Aisles, remained regally on the sidelines, seemingly contemptuous of the fray at its feet as lesser supermarket rivals scurried to consolidate their positions in the battle to acquire Safeway – number four in the sector’s pecking order.

But to the surprise of all – the media, the financial interests on both sides of the Atlantic, and rival bidders – the latest hat to come sailing into the ring is that of Tesco which announced Wednesday it has appointed HBOS and West LB Panmure to provide funding for a minimum bid of £2.9 billion ($4.71bn; €4.38bn) which could become formal next week.

Tesco’s intervention brings to six the number of likely suitors for Safeway’s hand – the original (and agreed) bidder, Northern-based supermarket chain William Morrison; J Sainsbury; Asda/Wal-Mart; retail predator Philip Green; and US private equity group Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

However, it is far from certain that Tesco’s intentions are serious. Some onlookers believe it is simply staking its claim in the event that the seam produces gold. Chief executive Sir Terry Leahy admitted he was impelled to move even though the competition authorities are unlikely to allow the number of national supermarket chains to shrink from four to three.

“We cannot sit on the sidelines,” he argues. “We have to make our case and our case is very strong – and just as good as those of Wal-Mart and Sainsbury.”

Meantime, the 72-year-old progenitor of the contest, Sir Kenneth Morrison, executive chairman of the William Morrison chain (a minnow compared with the other bidders but Britain's most profitable supermarketeer) slammed rival bids for Safeway as anti-competitive.

His bid, Morrison maintains, would create a fourth national supermarket group, capable of competing on near equal terms with the three giants – Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda/Wal-Mart.

“A takeover of Safeway by [any of the above] would eliminate a competitor, concentrate their purchasing power still further, and could create an anti-competitive and unhealthy marketplace with less choice and potentially higher prices,” said Sir Kenneth.

Nor had he a kind word for the private equity groups involved behind and in front of the scenes. The acquisition of Safeway by the money-men would eventually lead to the break-up of the chain, again leaving only three major players in the market, Morrison said.

Data sourced from: Financial Times and BrandRepublic; additional content by WARC staff