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 Arsene Wenger mused after last Saturday's 2-0 victory against West Ham that the Gunners "have a good chance to do it this year," he did so without drawing the customary doubters' giggles.
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 Carlo Ancelotti's side looks far from its imperious best, Chelsea needs only to win its game in hand, against Portsmouth on Wednesday, to bump Arsenal into third. By this point in the 2007-08 season (the last time any pundits seriously linked Arsenal to the trophy), the Gunners had swapped February's three-point lead atop the table for third place, dropped six points off the pace and would only slide further back. Hardly stats to recommend them this time out.
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 Aaron Ramsey in a way it didn't manage in the wake of Eduardo's injury two years ago.
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 Boaz Myhill to thank for Nicklas Bendtner's winner 30 seconds later, but it's the kind of game Wenger must have had in mind when he urged his players "not to give up, no matter what happens."
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 Thomas Vermaelen off, but rather than prompting his side's disintegration, the grievance brought about an authoritative display from Alex Song, who moved back into defense to help Arsenal win. Not so long ago, some supporters were vocal in questioning the long-term future of Song and a list including Bendtner, Emmanuel Eboue, Abou Diaby and Saturday's other eye-catcher, Denilson, at the club. Such was their composure in adversity last weekend, however, that Wenger was moved to make public his title aspirations.
"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 Rafa Benitez's men have rallied to make naysayers look about as prescient as David Icke. There's a more compelling case against Liverpool's revival this year, and not just because everyone else has at least one game in hand. Benitez had both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres fit for Sunday's meeting with Manchester United, a pair that he pronounced with a flourish "could win games on their own." But after Torres' magnificent opening header, both went AWOL at Old Trafford.
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 Roberto Mancini -- who has still yet to be mentioned in England without reference to the dashing lashing of his scarf; he's Italian, you know -- has suggested that fourth place could be decided as late as the last weekend of the season.
Bravo to Avram Grant for opting to field a full-strength Portsmouth team until the end of the season. Though it's not quite accurate to say that Pompey conducted themselves with the abandon of the doomed in defeating Hull City 3-2 on Saturday, they did enough to suggest that they could have a mischievous hand in outcomes closer to the top, too.
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 Didier Drogba currently hitting previously unimagined heights of petulant absurdity, anything is possible.
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. Jamie O'Hara has been superb in a Portsmouth shirt, but as a Spurs loanee, he'll only be eligible to play against Villa.
Clint Dempsey was restricted to a few shots from outside the box against Manchester City on Sunday, but couldn't replicate the stunning strike that helped Fulham to overturn a 4-1 deficit against Juventus three days earlier. ... Now that Brad Friedel is retired from international duty, Marcus Hahnemann is hoping to pinch a spot on the plane to South Africa this summer. The pair faced off in the west Midlands derby between Aston Villa and Wolves on Saturday, both conceding two goals. ... Tim Howard will be hard to get out of the No. 1 jersey, but he didn't have many opportunities to show off as Everton beat 10-man Bolton 2-0 on Saturday. ... Jozy Altidore pulled out of Hull's squad because of a hamstring injury. His replacement, Caleb Folan, scored twice.