Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Blood and Honour

The consensus is that last night's game against Chelsea won't live long in the memory. A combination of difficult weather, a negative opposition and some indulgent refereeing made it an unattractive spectacle. Putting John Terry on the pitch was just rubbing salt in the wound. The only fun to be had was the subsequent sight of Jose Mourinho auditioning for UKIP, with his "English blood is best" speech. If Sam Allardyce came out with that, he'd be crucified. Of course, the Portugeezer's chief attraction for many is not his ability to grind out the points, but his talent for distraction, not least in respect of the failings of owners and players. Chelski were thuggish on the field and off it (their fans singing about 96 dead scousers was particularly classy). Mourinho's jibe that Arsenal players "cry" was bizarre - the only time a player kicked the ball out of play was when Ramsey did so after Ramires collapsed in a heap. Of course, bullies always see compassion as weakness.

17 games in is just short of the half-way mark, but I thought an update on my clairvoyant powers would be appropriate now, before the commentariat herd gather at the halfway waterhole. Liverpool and Arsenal are on 36 points. A straight-line extrapolation would suggest that the champions will finish on 80 points, which is in line with my prediction after 11 games. At this stage last season, Manure had 42 points, while City were second on 36 and we were on 27. We then produced 46 points from the remaining 21 games, which, if repeated, would deliver a total points haul of 82. In the 2011-12 season, City were top with 44 and Manure second on 42. We made 38 points from the remaining 21 games. If repeated, that form would get us to a total of 74, which would at least ensure another season in the Champions League. I think we can dare to dream, so I'm still predicting a final tally of 78-80 points.

While there are plenty of tough periods ahead - Liverpool and Manure back to back in February and Chelsea and Man City back to back in March - I think we'll do reasonably well in these "big games", probably 6 points from 12, which will keep us on track. We owe both the Manchester teams a strong performance at the Emirates, while our track record at Anfield and Stamford Bridge has improved in recent years. The cups are likely to be less of a distraction than  usual. Few expect us to progress against Bayern, though I fancy us to squeak through on away goals, which will be deliciously ironic given Wenger's recent comments, probably by winning 1-0 at home and losing 2-1 away. The FA Cup is in the lap of the comedy gods. Spurs under Tim Sherwood may discover their roots, which means beating us (Adebayor to score), getting to the final and losing, and finishing mid-table.

In terms of the squad, a number of players have seen a dip in their performance over recent weeks (Giroud, Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil), while others are only starting to get back to their best (Walcott and Cazorla). Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain have yet to get their season started. It was interesting that Wenger chose not to make any substitutions last night, suggesting that he doesn't think any players are approaching the "red zone" of exhaustion yet. As the training regime is geared to reaching peak fitness and stamina in the New Year, this suggests that we're in good physical shape. I suspect Ozil may get a couple of games off over the next fortnight to recharge his batteries, while Podolski should allow Giroud to limit himself to 60 minutes for a few matches. Once we get past game 19, transfer speculation will go into over-drive, which might be the Frenchman's cue to start banging in the goals again.

Overall, we should be pleased with the way that the season has gone so far. We're better than we were last year, and there are signs that we can be better still. 2 points from the last 9 is obviously disappointing, but against tough opponents we were only outplayed once, and the 6-3 scoreline against Man City reflected an atypically poor defensive display by us rather than their habitual free-scoring. They look like the one team that could draw away from the chasing pack, but they also look vulnerable at the back - a classic City team, in other words. They, rather than Manure, Chelski or Liverpool, remain the obvious threat to our ambitions. If we're still in the mix come our return fixture on the 29th of March, then we'll have our destiny in our own hands.

There's a definite retro air to the Premier League at present: ugly Chelski, inconsistent Citeh, efficient Liverpool, struggling Manure, tough Everton, laughing-stock Spuds. Arsenal look like a squad that is gelling, with an improving defence, an inventive midfield and an under-appreciated striker. It's just like 1989 all over again. The shit-for-brains Chelsea fans who sang about Hillsborough don't know what spirits they may be invoking. My money's on the honourable Aaron Ramsey to provide the Michael Thomas moment when we get down to the wire.

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