Seven points and a game in hand.
That’s the deficit Arsenal have to overcome in order to secure a first League title in over a decade. It’s not just out of our hands, so much as all but impossible – a pipe dream.
Yet somehow, hope is the drug that keeps you thinking that maybe, just maybe, there’s still a chance.
This weekend I, along with around 31,000 other lucky Gooners, am off to Wembley to see my side hopefully reach a second consecutive cup final. Yet I have spent just as much of the preceding week thinking about another game kicking off at a pretty similar time.
Chelsea host Manchester United in the 5.30 kick off, and the question of who I want to win that game is keeping me awake far more than the prospect of facing Reading.
Up for the Cup
That’s not to say I’m not invested in the FA Cup game – for me the cup always evokes a feeling of family that simply can’t be equalled by a match which is just one of 38 in a long year.
Indeed, rarely if ever during a league season do you get the collective feeling of support that envelops a knock-out atmosphere. Too often agendas and politics carry through into league games. Seats, although sold, remain empty. Fans spend the first ten minutes of the game eating their lunch rather than paying full attention to the game.
It’s all too ordinary, too routine.
There’s nothing ordinary about the most famous cup competition in the world, and one where we have a chance this year of winning a record-breaking 12th FA Cup.
But when it comes to this weekend, there’s a reason why, although I respect Reading and I will be fully immersed in the match, I will still be keeping a watching brief on the league encounters.
For the first time in a long time, I fully trust the Arsenal side that has blossomed this season to share that respect and get the job done.
And that means I can allow a small part of my brain to wonder – who would I prefer to win at Stamford Bridge? My heart says Man United (first time for everything!) but does my head agree?
Stick or twist?
Here’s the dilemma: fifth placed Liverpool are a hefty nine points behind (frankly it might as well be ten when we look at goal difference) and there are just six games and eighteen points remaining. If we fail to collect the nine points necessary for a top four finish from a fixture list which includes Hull, Sunderland and West Brom, then we deserve to be shot. It would also assume Liverpool beat Chelsea.
A Champions League place, then, is all but secure.
Fourth placed Manchester City are five points behind, in absolutely shocking form and still have to play Tottenham, Manchester United, Swansea and Southampton. Any kind of return from the Chelsea or United games for us would surely see us finish above them too.
Automatic qualification, then, is also pretty likely.
The difference between coming second and third is pretty slim – a few pounds of prize money here or there, some bragging rights with the “I definitely have an ancestor from Manchester” fans who live in Surrey, and of course a stronger feeling that we’re moving in the right direction.
But when it comes down to it, I’d always rather have won the FA Cup tie against Man United last month than finish second instead of third.
So then, the consequences of a Chelsea victory on Saturday are pretty uninspiring – a bit of daylight between ourselves and United and a nigh on impossible chance of winning the league.
A Man United win on the other hand could make things at least a little interesting. Ok, so we will be under more pressure for our second place, but it at least exposes the tiniest chink in Chelsea’s armour. Any kind of stutter between now and the end of May could set those nerves jangling.
I saw a tweet today asking would you rather win the Champions League and get relegated or secure a top four place, with the answer supposedly being you don’t tell your grandkids about top four. I guess that’s how I feel about the league this season – if we are confident that we will finish in the top four, and indeed top three, (and I am) then wouldn’t we rather have a bit of excitement at the thought that Chelsea might implode, rather than have nothing to play for in the final few games of the season?
It seems rather symbolic of the way you should never give up, that the team we face this weekend is Reading – a team who once led us 4-0 after 37 minutes only to lose 7-5.
So what would it take?
Obviously we would have to win every game between now and the end of the season – that goes without saying – and ordinarily I would laugh in the face of that. However, if ever we have a chance of putting together such a run then our current form and available squad of players means that that we have that chance now.
But it’s not all down to us.
IF Chelsea lose to Man United, and…
IF we beat Chelsea next weekend…
Two very big ‘if’s, obviously…
Going into the final five games of the season, Chelsea will have 73 points and we will have 69 – a four point swing. Four points is a lot from five games, but one little wobble and even Mourinho’s men might start to have the odd doubt, the odd stumble.
Yes, all the stars would have to align, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Chelsea could drop points against Liverpool, Palace’s strong away tactics or even relegation-threatened Leicester and Sunderland – every team in the dogfight at the bottom is scrapping for their lives at the moment.
Currently our goal difference is seven worse than Chelsea’s, but the two results mentioned above would mean at least a three goal improvement in that statistic straight off, and if we win our final five games while they draw two, that would also be at least two more goals to the good.
So yes, it’s unlikely, and yes, I’m setting myself up for a disappointment, but what is life without a little hope? Spurs fans may tell their grandkids about a year where they finished in the top four, but that’s not us.
We have known and will know again far greater success.
So let’s be ambitious, let’s dare to dream that Chelsea might not be the immovable object the media would have us believe.
Arsene always says that we will keep on trying until the title is mathematically beyond us, and I expect this year to be no different and that’s why, come seven o’clock on Saturday, I hope to be celebrating wins for two red teams in London.
There is a caveat though:
I wrote last week about how the improvement this season has been a success in itself – I would have taken the FA Cup, second place and a strong finish in a heartbeat at the start of the season, with a view to building on that in 2016.
There is only really one result that truly matters on Saturday, and that will come at the national stadium.
It doesn’t stop me dreaming though.