Saturday, May 04, 2013

Cliché corner

The dying weeks of any football season are delightfully riven with cliché. In all leagues and at all levels, managers, players and pundits trot out any of the following nonsense:
  • We’re at the business end of the season
  • Every game is a cup final
  • We’re in a mini league all of our own
  • We’re too good to go down
  • There are no easy games at this end of the season
  • We’re going to take each game as it comes
  • We’ll fight on until the very last second of the very last game
  • We’re going to give 110%/200%/1000% until it’s out of our hands
  • It’s out of our hands now
  • We may be down, but we’re not out
  • We gave it all, but sometimes that’s not enough.
You will have already heard many, if not most, in the last couple of weeks, as seasons effectively end for the already relegated or promoted. But with Wigan, Newcastle, Villa, Sunderland, Norwich and Southampton all barn-dancing around the one remaining relegation spot, and Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal scrapping it out for Champions League football next season, "we're in a mini league" is bound to come up this weekend.

The London triumvirate will be giving it the mathematically impossible 110% over a gruelling couple of weeks that will see Chelsea meet Manchester United on Sunday and Spurs on Wednesday, Tottenham enjoy a somewhat easier run with home fixtures against Southampton and Sunderland, plus a tough away game at Stoke, and Arsenal - with one less game to play than the other two - visit relegated QPR on Saturday, host drop-avoiding Wigan, and then go to struggling Newcastle on the final day of the season. Clearly, every game a cup final. To be taken each game at a time.

That the fight for third and fourth place should be between these three sides says plenty about how the balance of power in football waxes and wanes. It was once said that the Premier League title is lost in London, but that was before Chelsea - under Jose Mourinho (remember him?) - wrested the title away from Manchester two seasons in a row.

But with Manchester United steaming away with the title this season - indeed, winning it a month early and with the points of five wins to spare - the battle for European berths should be drawing all the attention.

Three points separate Chelsea and Spurs this morning, with Arsenal - on a good run - in the middle. With Chelsea now secured as a Europa League finalist, Manager of the Month, Rafa Benitez (awarded for performance and not for lasting the month) has his work cut out. Consistency - or lack of - has been Chelsea's undoing this season.

Forget any complaints about fixture pileups and competing in seven competitions, as they were preparing for at the outset, Chelsea's inability to put a decent run together, the result of defensive vulnerability and ineffectiveness up front, plus the arrogance of an interim first team coach hell-bent on rotating his squad, has held them back in a season where they should have more to show for themselves than being finalists in a competition they weren't even in when this term kicked off.

Spurs, for me (and this will be painful to write) have been the surprise package of the season. I, along with many others, felt certain that Andre Villas-Boas was walking into another bear trap in taking the manager's job at Tottenham. It seemed too obvious that The Cocky One was so desperate to prove he had it in him to manage at the highest club level, despite what happened at Chelsea, that he was prepared to go through it all again.

Things have turned out differently and, actually, I'm pleased. Although Spurs currently lie fifth - they've been consistently top four all season, and have lost only three of their last 22 games. In Bale they have a gem, but in total, they appear to have a squad in perfect  harmony with their young coach. Perhaps it really is all about chemistry?

And then there's Arsenal. Such is the crumpled, Sid James of a face on Arsene Wenger that it's not always easy to tell his emotional state. But there have been times this season when I have genuinely felt sorry for the Frenchman. There have been pitch-side television shots of him looking genuinely sad, wordlessly expressing a plea of "why isn't this working?".

In interviews he has always put on the bravest of faces, a touch of Gallic indifference holding things together when clearly, beneath it all, has been a raging furnace of pain. The sympathy does go only so far: just have Chelsea have been victims of their own dysfunction, Arsenal have suffered from their own inertia to fix things.

Selling Van Persie may have been football's version of self-amputation, but to strain the metaphor, Arsenal are hardly Sir Ranulph Fiennes stranded at the South Pole with just a penknife, frostbite and no alternative. There have been plenty of strikers Arsenal could have bought. But they haven't. And so stubbornness - for it has no other name - will probably be the word that defines the Gunners' 2012-13 season.

That said, given all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that has gone on most of the season in and around north-east London, today Arsenal are in fourth spot. And they're not Liverpool. Credit really should be due somewhere.

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