So the battle for the Premier League is shaking out the contenders. Spurs and Liverpool are falling short. No great surprise with Spurs; maybe a bit more with Liverpool, who’d started to look like they were getting it together. Biggest surprise of all is the slow deflation of Man City. A couple of losses have turned into a trend, and their superstars are looking jaded, uninterested. A defeat last night to feisty Crystal Palace said everything. The sort of game no serious contender for the title is going to lose.
Two sides, other than leaders Chelsea, are looking good. Man United have battled their way through the season, through a barrage of criticism about Louis van Gaal’s tactics, the quality of the players, and so on. Par for the course for United if they aren’t top of the tree. But they hung on in the top four and are looking pretty strong now. Rooney is playing well, the re-introduction of Mata has added some quality to the attacking, and this has been possible because Michael Carrick is back, holding together the defensive end of midfield. Commentators and fans are rarely sympathetic to teams when there are injuries; but they can have a major impact on the way teams are able to play. And that is exactly what has happened with Arsenal too. They are back to pretty much full strength, Spring is in the air, and they are playing football to dream about. The midfield maestros – Ozil, Cazorla, Sanchez, Ramsey – completely took Liverpool apart on Saturday at the Emirates. 4-1 and could have been more. Revenge for the traumatic collapse at Anfield the previous season. Giroud is strutting around like a French cockerel and the defence is more solid, helped by the emergence of Coquelin as an outstanding defensive midfielder. But it is so infuriating! WHY DIDN’T THEY DO IT EARLIER? Well, maybe it was the injuries. There were loads. It makes a difference.
The remaining doubt about Arsenal – OK, there are quite a few – is whether they can do it when there is a real chance of winning the League. Now there isn’t much hope they are turning it on. The pressure is off. It was the same in the Champions’ League. Total screw up in first leg against Monaco; brilliant in the second. What might have been…
And what might be. What if Chelsea implode? Like Man City have.
It’s unlikely. They are seven points clear, with a game in hand. They are not playing at their best, but they are still winning. There is depth and quality in the squad – and Jose Mourinho is the manager. He won’t take risks. He’ll grind out the edgy results. Until they are over the finishing line. The only hope for the chasers is that there are games for Chelsea coming up against Man Utd and Arsenal. If both those teams beat them – and on current form it is possible – then it will become even more a question of nerve. I’m clutching at straws, because, of course, I’d love to see Arsenal snatch it. But I wouldn’t put money on anyone but Chelsea right now.
And credit to Chelsea – and Mourinho. They have been impressive this season. And good to watch. Hazard, Fabregas, Costa, Oscar embellish any game. And there is a strong supporting cast. Worthy winners.
But come on the Ars-en-al!
PS. Sadly, after a brief moment of hope about bigger things just before Christmas, West Ham went into reverse and are now settling for relegation-free mid-table mediocrity. Entirely predictable. Grateful we aren’t in the relegation dogfight I guess.