Hottest Premiership title battle is three-horse race
Posted Saturday, December 7 2013 at 02:00
Manchester United are definitely out of it, but Arsenal haven’t run away with it. Debatably the most exciting Premiership race in years is only just hotting up, the heat expected to escalate over Christmas, and the whole thing to boil over by February.
It is not so much because there are more teams involved, because two-horse races can be every bit as riveting as the multi-pronged pursuits, as ensconced by the three memorable scraps between Man United and Arsenal in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
This one’s super thrill is more in its unpredictability, and the extra dimension thrown in by the jostling for slots for an elite competition to which England’s big six now have reason to believe they all belong, but for which there is not enough room for the lot.
In my season’s forecast here in August I went for Chelsea, Man City, Man United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool to finish in that order. Like the punter at the bookmaker’s, you live and die with that call once you’ve submitted it, but with a third of the season gone a review of the race in its reality and entirety is in order.
The November test has been passed, and now another one in the form of the festive season presents itself. Arsenal fans need not be irked by the ‘Doubting Thomases’ that will keep at it all the way to May, it is just the price they have to pay for having been away so long.
The squad is coping superbly, with key players like Santi Carzola, Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta missing long stretches already without hurting the team; even if major worries have been voiced, they will continue to cope should they have to do without arguably more crucial absentees role-wise, as Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil or Per Mertesacker (unless they all get crocked at the same time).
On Wednesday Arsene Wenger said that all the work they intend to do in pivotal December would amount to nothing if they didn’t first beat Hull, and I agreed entirely. They have big games against Man City and Chelsea coming up, but what has finally convinced me of Arsenal’s title credentials is beating Southampton, Cardiff and Hull in their last three games without engaging top gear. Those are the games that win championships. The points from the big games are shared, and with six big teams this time there will be too much sharing for them to matter.
Still my favourites to win it, Chelsea are yet to show the consistency of champions which Arsenal has displayed. It augurs well for them that they are only four points off with their best still to come, and recent selections and rotations indicate that Jose Mourinho is finally comfortable with an embarrassment of riches he didn’t want to have in the past. And the strikers are yet to score …
It is a measure of the tightness at the top that a team that has already lost four on the road is six points behind the leader with a chance to inflict its own damage next weekend. Arsenal and Chelsea are doing better away, and conceding twice at West Brom for a jittery finish where they should have been comfortable was perturbing. Fail to win at Southampton and they will be back to square one, although the return of Kompany and the ease with which they create and score mean they will be in the mix up to the end.
Four for one
Man United and Spurs are out of it, and Liverpool are not deep enough to win it either. Theirs is a four way fight for one Champions League slot, which fight I will tackle next week.