There comes a point in each Premier League season where talk previously disregarded as wild speculation accumulates enough gravitas to be worth considering. And that time is about now.
Earlier in the year, only bookmakers were suggesting that Arsenal might win the league -- on big posters, next to the kind of odds that generally attract drunks, bankrupts and Super Bowl dabblers. But Arsenal has emerged from Week 31 in second place and, for the first time since actually winning the thing in 2003-04, is a genuine title contender with a handful of games left to play. When manager
However, with the season run-in promising yet more twists and turns, Arsenal fans would do well not to get too carried away. Manchester United is in the box seat and Arsenal is just two points above Chelsea. Though
But Saturday's win was Arsenal's sixth in succession, and the Gunners have a habit of being unstoppable once they hit that kind of streak -- in each of their title-winning seasons under Wenger, they've pulled away from the pack with long unbeaten runs. The way Arsenal beat West Ham hinted that it has the stamina to sustain its current challenge.
Aresenal's undoing in '07-08 was a run of fractious draws with Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic, Middlesbrough and soon-to-be-relegated Birmingham City, which held Arsenal home and away. By staying tight and getting stuck in, less ethereal sides succeeded in making Arsenal's refinement and grace look like plain old fragility, particularly away from the Emirates. Wenger may bemoan every last injustice, no matter how slight or circumstantial, but he has previously been frank enough to admit that relentless harrying by sides fighting for their lives simply withered his fleet-footed, young technicians. Arsenal matched United for points won against teams in the top half of the table in '07-08, but its inability to find a way around more obstinate opponents sabotaged what had looked like a decent stab at the title at Christmas.
It's interesting, then, that much has been made of the comparative "ease" of Arsenal's remaining fixtures this season. Though Chelsea must still travel to Manchester United, Arsenal's trips to St Andrews, White Hart Lane and Ewood Park (not to mention the visit of Manchester City) all promise the kind of hearty scrap in which it continued to struggle even in the first half of this season. Crucially, however, Arsenal seems to have mustered the strength for such encounters just in the nick of time, rallying after the loss of
After 93 minutes against Hull earlier this month, Arsenal barely had the breath, let alone the cause, to complain about the 1-1 scoreline. It had a desperate parry by
Wenger had seethed and simmered after relinquishing a 2-0 lead against West Ham back in October, so last Saturday's encounter with the same opponent was particularly telling. Wenger again shook his fist at the referee's decision to send
"The hunger is there, the talent is there and I think the nerves are there," he said.
A draw between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford next week would really set them jangling, but Wenger is not alone in believing that his charges can steel themselves for the challenge.
There's a humdinger of a race for the fourth spot (and a Champons League berth) as well, with all the runners clipping hurdles in a fashion to suggest a taste for the Marx brothers' canon. It's been tempting to write off Liverpool at various stages of the last several seasons, but each time
Spurs have held the fourth spot for much of the season, but despite their improvement against bottom-half sides, top-half wins remain elusive. They'd do well to maintain their standing after April visits from both Chelsea and Arsenal, and a trip to Manchester United, especially if the queue outside their treatment room continues to swell.
That leaves Villa, with its strangely appealing earthy solidity, and City, whose nouveau riche swagger can produce moments of intoxicatingly rampant genius going forward, but can also result in an embarrassing stampede at the back (Sunday's 2-1 defeat of Fulham brought plenty of examples of each). No surprise, then, that City manager
Chelsea will be the odds-on favorite to leave Fratton Park with three points Wednesday night, but having labored to take a point off Blackburn on Sunday, and with
More likely, though, is that Pompey's trip to Tottenham on Saturday, and Villa's visit to the south coast three weeks later, will tinker with the standings around fourth.