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The Also-Ran Trilogy

After a turbulent encounter at Old Trafford on Sunday the pressure was on a Chelsea team to reciprocate their own winning result and keep alive the Premiership title race at least until Thursday. The reverse scenario was prevalent last week as Chelsea won away from home at Man City on the Saturday afternoon and Man Utd could only draw with Middlesbrough on the Sunday. Today Chelsea conceded a last minute equaliser to Wigan, scored by the far from prolific Emile Heskey, and so with that ponderous score line the Premiership title race was abandoned. It seems that the pressure of the following fixture is pressure too much.

Chelsea travel to Everton on Thursday night and anything but victory will all but hand a second successive Premiership campaign to Man Utd. Given that Utd and Chelsea then play on the following weekend it is more than conceivable that all three points at Everton might still not be enough for Chelsea. In the cold light of sobriety I can’t think that too many people would begrudge Man Utd winning the title again this season. In spite of the blinkered loyalty that many adhere to most genuine football fans will concede that Utd have the deepest squad in terms of talent and in terms of numbers, Utd played the most consistent football for the duration of the season, week in week out, home and away; Utd have the standout performer of the season in Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ferguson concocted the appropriate blend of defensive stability and attacking fluency.

So where did the others go wrong? At the beginning I used to feel a little remorseful for Avram Grant. He inherited a squad that was every bit the Mourinho baby – it was an absolute dynamite squad, Grant couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect in the whole of world football – but they were Mourinho‘s players. And Mourinho’s supporters. Avram Grant has endured almost the entire season under the curse of Mourinho and the fans have never let him forget that, and so they too are culpable for this seasons silver medals. At first I thought Avram Grant was doing a decent job, he was getting results without ever being pretty; maybe drawing a few too many at home. He was winning European games and doing all this while missing some staple Chelsea performers at random times along the road. Not bad to still be in touching distance with just a handful of games to play and with your destiny still your own to pillage.

Now I feel less sorry for Avram Grant. His decision to inexplicably meddle with the team formation during the Carling Cup final was idiotic and he got exactly what he deserved that day. And even tonight, Grant decided to ‘rest’ some star players under the foolish perception that the Thursday game against Everton would be a tougher ordeal than little old Wigan at home. Joe Cole should not be on the bench. A manager of such notoriety should have either the humility or the sensitivity to understand that Premiership football is a helter-skelter circus and on any given day any team can beat the other. Underestimating Wigan was a blunder too many.

Every tabloid back page and almost every internet comment is rubbishing the Arsenal season and most are critical of Arsène Wenger’s accountability. The more bizarre back pages and the more irate comments are calling for Wenger to be replaced. Getting rid of Wenger would be absolute bonkers and those disillusioned Arsenal supporters who think his journey is complete will surely reassess such a notion with a more calming posture very soon. Arsenal have been an outstanding football team this season and the architect is Arsène Wenger. Perhaps Arsène Wenger has been a little malevolent with his transfer purchasing policy and that might have cost him a trophy this season. But it’s not as if Arsenal-quality players are readily available even if you do have the cash to buy them. Most recognized Arsenal-quality players will probably be playing for established clubs aspiring within their own domestic championship or embroiled within their own European potential. Alexander Hleb is now an Arsenal-quality player thanks to the tutelage of Arsène Wenger and a season of investment; Hleb was not Arsenal-quality when he was first purchased. The number of big fee transfer failures across the Premiership rhetoric should give reverence to Wenger on this one.

Arsenal are in good hands with Arsène Wenger and while the maturation of the current team has taken another vacant season I remain convinced that Arsenal will be even closer again next time around. And let’s be fair, two appalling refereeing decisions were the difference between European advancement and European despair. And I happen to agree with Arsène that his team have been subjected to some outrageous officiating this term. So if Arsène Wenger mellows a little with his recruitment strategy and assuming that he can find the quality of player desired I can only imagine how good Arsenal will be next season. And while you’re lamenting the empty cupboard just think back to the flamboyant passages of play that mesmerised opposition defenders and tortured doubting pundits for more than the majority of the season. Arsenal will be back. I’m not sure if they even went anywhere.

I am no longer convinced that Rafael Benítez is even trying to win the Premiership anymore. It seems that his flawed detail to rest the majority of his good players for the majority of the early season is a strategy of concession. While the Liverpool fan and his season ticket fees are wishing for the deferred Premiership success the guy in charge is preserving his fortunes for European glory and only European glory. The mid season slump attributed to squad rotation never really gambles with fourth place omission or the guaranteed re-entry into the Champions League and so while Chelsea and Arsenal are running the starting XI beyond empty in the pursuit of domestic euphoria and European prestige Benítez can roll out his new Spanish striker fit and healthy for the quarter final. Fourth place and a European dream. Don’t worry about all that Premiership guff.

Man Utd will almost certainly be Premiership champions once again this season though with the prospect of a fallow summer of English football we might see a few changes ahead. The constant boardroom unrest at Anfield, the dissent for Avram Grant and his dithering celebrities, and the wounded pride of Arsène Wenger will all make for an enchanting conclusion to the season.

From The Writings Of Jonny Carter
www.JonnyCarter.com


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