Arsenal are the newly installed bookies favourites to win the Premier League for the first time since 2004.
I’m not sure what our odds were in the 94th minute of Sunday’s bruising encounter with table topping Leicester City, but I suppose that’s irrelevant. Danny Welbeck’s last gasp, Lazarus like intervention in the title race, which sparked perhaps the most joyous celebration the Emirates has ever witnessed, saw Arsenal end the day just two points behind Leicester.
When the gap had effectively widened from five to eight points at half time, it’s understandable that the bookies now feel Arsenal have the edge in a title race that promises to be a white knuckle ride for the four teams left in contention.
We all know the universal truth that nobody’s ever seen a bookie driving around in a clapped out Reliant Robin. However, the news that we are now seen as the team most likely has not sent me rushing out to the nearest offie and clearing them of their entire stock of Bollinger. Why? Well, I am an Arsenal fan so I’m sitting here just waiting for it to go wrong.
We still have to visit both Manchester clubs. There is an always tricky trip to Everton as well as a March 5th fixture which may, for once, live up to the hyperbole of being “THE MOST IMPORTANT NORTH LONDON DERBY. EVER!!!!!!” Any Arsenal fan looking at the Premier League title as a done deal, though I doubt there’s any of you reading this that are, well, you my friend, are being a bit previous.
That said, I don’t look at these fixtures as ones that Arsenal can’t win. We already know that both Manchester clubs are somewhat in the doldrums this season. Louis Van Gaal is having a torrid time at Old Trafford, whilst the “noisy neighbours” title bid seems to have been fatally undermined from within by the news that Pep Guardiola will replace Manuel Pellegrini this summer. If Arsenal don’t quite travel north knowing that both teams are there for the taking, particularly as we visit United off the back of a game with some Spanish team that nobody’s ever heard of, then we at least travel with recent good memories in mind. Hello, Danny Welbeck and Santi Cazorla!
The Spurs game, though… This may be the first time in many a year where Arsenal will make that short journey from, as the Arctic Monkeys once put it, “the ritz to the rubble” with their hosts clear favourites to take the points. I find myself hoping that, for once, we get a referee who isn’t complicit in the rotational fouling that comes as standard and went totally unpunished in last season’s fixture. Honestly, here and now, if you offered me a draw from that game, I would take it. Of course, I want us to win. Obviously, I want us to grind their noses into the dust. I want Alexis Sanchez to have the impact a man of his obvious talent should have in a north London Derby, after all that’s why we spent the big bucks on him.
But, more than anything, I want us not to get beaten on March 5th.
And, of course, I want Spurs bubble to burst. If there is a silver cloud to this run of late victories, worldies, dubious penalties and everything else, it’s that it’s happening now. As in now, February, three months from the end of the season. I vividly remember how awesome Arsenal looked in January 2008, I remember working out how many games we were from the Premier League title. And we all know how that finished. Spurs are on a great run, for sure, but they have to sustain it for another 12 games. Are they really that capable? I’m not so sure, but obviously, I hope not!
On the other hand, Arsenal have survived what appears to have been the first team taking a month off, but was, in all probability, just the cumulative effect of not being able to call on any number of game changing players. And we don’t need to look too far to see an example of how important these players are, do we?
One of my earliest pieces this season talked about how squad depth would be the key to this Arsenal title challenge. I think that this has been more than borne out this season. Only Olivier Giroud and Nacho Monreal have joined Petr Cech in appearing in every Premier League game this season. Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin have made 23 and 24 appearances respectively, which tells us; a) that both have manged to stay relatively healthy and; b) Arsène does like a settled back four. Ahead of them, Aaron Ramsey has managed 22 starts and Mesut Özil 24. Around that spine, though, the cast of characters has been something of a revolving door.
Look at the long term absences of players like Santi Cazorla, Alexis, Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck. Look at the loss of form of players like Theo, the Ox and, when he has been available, Alexis. I think it’s easy to understand why Arsenal have been struggling a bit in front of goal this season. A glass half empty man (my uncle) may say that with a better squad we’d have made light work of these absences. I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect a squad in the Premier League to be able to go and win matches when all you’ve got on your bench is three defenders, Matty Flamini and, a promising but raw, Alex Iwobi. On the other hand, when you can throw on Walcott and Welbeck (with Joel Campbell an unused sub), then that can make all the difference in the world.
As Leicester City found out to their cost on Sunday. Hmmm, perhaps that’s why we are the bookies favourites. Not to mention the fact that we have a squad of players used to winning things, Leicester and Spurs don’t.
Look at that, a whole column without making a Specsavers type joke about Martin Atkinson. He can thank Danny Welbeck for that, the useless cretin.
Before I close, I’d just like to say thanks to Helen Trantum for stepping in for me last week. It wasn’t a lot of fun being ill, but I enjoyed seeing me from your point of view. A bit like the Bad Blood episode of The X Files, which you’ve probably never seen.