So here we are, at the business end of the season. In the coming days Tottenham and Arsenal will battle for supremacy, and the first trophy of the season will be presented. In addition, England's preparations for Euro 2012 are about to get into full swing. The storylines:
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, we are all going direct to Heaven, we are all going direct the other way -- in short, it really depends on which end of the Seven Sisters Road you hail from.
In London N5, the darkness, the despair and the incredulity, and the certainty that a healthy Robin van Persie would keep Arsenal in the title chase has withered; recent defeats to Sunderland (FA Cup) and AC Milan (Champions League) have all but ensured that Arsenal will have to wait another season for a trophy; and now Arsène Wenger is inventing silverware.
"The first trophy is to finish in the top four," Wenger said after his club was soundly beaten by Martin O'Neill's revitalized Sunderland. Though his intent was to recognize the achievement in qualifying for the Champions League, as consistently as Arsenal has done with him in charge, his words clung to the ears as survivors cling to lifeboats.
By contrast, Harry Redknapp's words boxed Arsenal ears with bare knuckles: "They are a good side," he said of Arsenal this week, thus becoming perhaps the first Tottenham manager in a generation to have scope for such condescension ahead of a North London derby. Spurs make the four-mile journey from London N17 on Sunday with a 10-point advantage over Arsenal. Redknapp's side may have only just survived in the FA Cup, but Spurs recently beat Newcastle -- a point behind Arsenal, in sixth place -- by five goals to nil.
Since Tottenham's diabolical performance against Stevenage, Redknapp has confirmed that Luka Modric, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Rafael van der Vaart are all fit, which is good news for a pressing Spurs lineup that will face a weakened and wobbly Arsenal defense. Redknapp's path toward ensuring Tottenham finished as London's top club will benefit from the fact that Tottenham can afford to lose at the Emirates and still keep
Liverpool -- another club from the Premier League's traditional top four who now needs both hands to count the years since its last trophy -- also plays on Sunday afternoon, in the League Cup final against second-tier side Cardiff City.
Last season, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish backed then-Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier's decision to prioritize the league over cup competitions, insisting that it was up to the Football Association to make the cups more attractive for managers. But in a season of controversy for Liverpool and Dalglish, and with the quality of several of his signings under question, the League Cup, the ugly sister of domestic silverware, has acquired a new significance.
"We have got a huge opportunity in front of us to make the season relatively successful," said Dalglish, who was keen to emphasize how serious Liverpool's approach to the game has been, yet couldn't help but imply that his side is confident of ending the day drenched in Champagne. "I am sure there will be a lot of other clubs wishing they had done it differently when they see the two teams walking out there on Sunday. If other people have other priorities, then that is their right, but the two clubs that are going there on Sunday have treated the competition fairly and honestly and have got their reward."
Stuart Pearce does not seem to be affecting patience or humility when he talks about his ongoing education. He even suggests that he lacks the experience to make much of a claim on the England managership, even though he was clearly delighted to pull on his company-issue suit to name his squad for the forthcoming friendly against the Netherlands. "I don't think I've got the experience to be the full-time England manager," he said. "I'm a pretty lightly-raced coach ... I've only picked sides for about 160 matches for club and country."
Still, it must peeve him at least a little that for many, the thought of him in the England dugout conjures only images of him being
When the senior team lost 4-1 to a Mesut Özil-inspired Germany in South Africa a year later, it was supposed to signal the start of a more holistic approach for England, mimicking the Germans' conveyor belt of talent through the age groups. Only now, after 18 months and with Pearce in as interim manager, does England finally have a roster that demonstrates a mix of courage and common sense.
Sunderland striker Fraizer Campbell is the youthful gamble, in on the strength of his lively return to the Premier League following an injury. Wayne Rooney's inclusion acknowledges the Manchester United forward's importance to the team with or without a two-match ban at the finals. The excellent Manchester City right-back, Micah Richards, has been called up after having played only 45 minutes under Capello, yet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one of the highlights of Arsenal's season, remains on the Under-21s squad.
"Alex might well be the best player for the Under-21s at this moment in time," Pearce said, "but the experience he gets from playing 90 minutes in a qualifying match [for Euro 2013, against Belgium on the same night] will serve him much better than being elevated into the seniors and having a 10-minute cameo role here.'' Pearce is probably right that it is too soon for him to become England manager full-time, but his faithful long-term tenure could make him an attractive short-term solution.