I've spared the commentary on Arsenal recently because they have been, I think everyone would agree, all over the place. It has been hard to make much sense of what has gone on, though I think we're now emerging from the waking nightmare. In early March I was still whistling cheerfully, hoping that Anfield was an aberration and that we would ignore the script that insisted on a collapse. To make matters worse, Liverpool have failed to crumple since, which raises the prospect that Alan Hansen's last season on MOTD will see them clinch the title. The chief compensation will be the look on Alex Ferguson's face when someone mentions "perch". That and the knowledge that the odious Mourinho would have been denied.
In one sense we are the victims of our own success, the table-topping early season form having raised expectations, perhaps unreasonably (I thought 76 points a realistic target and we're still on for that). Wenger might have gambled during the transfer window, bringing in some fresh blood as a contingency for injuries and lost form, but there were few players of the required calibre available, not least because it's a World Cup year. Without reinforcements, we were riding our luck. Sure enough, the overlapping losses of Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere and Ozil drained the team of its earlier zip and panache. Wenger's recent claim that we must "return to basics" is more an admission of inescapable constraints than a deliberate strategy.
The return of Ramsey and (possibly) Ozil should give us more attacking variety, though the key for the run-in may well be the stability of the defence. Vermaelen has looked an unconvincing stand-in both at centre-back and left-back, so you have to hope Koscielny and Gibbs stay and get fit respectively. We're not going to discover some free-scoring strikers down the back of the sofa, so maximising our points total will require clean-sheets and opportunistic goals from midfield. Podolski is rightly seen as a specialist in the latter, but his defensive play is poor and unlikely to get better. I suspect his sparing use reflects Gibbs's injury proneness.
The progress to the FA Cup final has been encouraging. Though the dominant narrative on the day will be about Arsenal potentially slipping up ("another Birmingham"), such that a victory will be sniffed at by the neutral, this ignores the team's success in beating Spurs, Liverpool and Everton to get there. We have fought our way through, and the mental fortitude of the penalty shootout against Wigan was part of that. My one regret is that the game is being played at Wembley, which remains a horrible ground, far inferior to Cardiff for atmosphere and only marginally more convenient for travel. To add insult to injury, 40k of the 90k tickets for the match will go to members of the "football family" (i.e. liggers and touts), which means only a 60% chance of getting a ticket in the draw for season ticket holders.
I went to the semi-final and frankly enjoyed little of it. This was due less to the dull play (Wigan were unadventurous and we were too slow) and more to the pissed-up, angry Arsenal fans, particularly the two knobheads in front of me who insisted on standing, despite us being almost at the top of the upper tier. The chief use they found for the seats was to kick them in anger when Wigan scored. I'm not averse to swearing in frustration at games myself, but the vitriol directed at our own players and manager was just insane. The pissed knobhead to the left of me, who smoked throughout and disputed the decisions of a linesman who was a quarter of a mile away, was almost reasonable in comparison. Naturally, these same eejits were the loudest in celebration when we scored.
They're a minority, but there is no doubt that they represent a distinct strand among supporters: blokes in their late 30s and 40s whose youth and early adulthood coincided with the long run of success from 1987 to 2005, for whom the lean years have perhaps reflected disappointments and narrowing options off the pitch. I'm reminded of Alan Sillitoe's The Match, not least because supporting Notts County through thin and thin puts our silverware drought into perspective.
I had thought that this would be a season in which the title would be clinched with a low points total of around 80, but Liverpool could still achieve a total of 89, the same as the last two champions. If we take maximum points, we'll finish on 79. This will probably still only be enough for fourth spot, but it would represent progress: the last three seasons we've finished on 68, 70, and 73 points. If we can additionally win the FA Cup, then you'd have to mark the season down as one of real progress and encouragement, though I have a feeling the angry brigade will only be satisfied if we additionally make successful summer bids for Diego Costa, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Gareth Bale.