- 17 Feb 16
Between the Feverish Wait for the Euros and a Stunningly Unpredictable Premier League Season. There’s Barely Been Time to Draw Breath...
How are we all doing, comrades? Booked your flights yet? Since we last convened, the gods have given us an almighty killer of a Euros draw, one almost as vicious as that which blocked our path at the last Finals four years ago, where the eventual champions and runners-up had fun ripping us to shreds while barely seeming to break sweat.
This one is scarcely any more congenial, though the revised tournament format at least offers us scope to hope that a third-place wild-card will be all but booked, should we get off to a winning start against Sweden, the most obviously beatable of our three opponents. Nonetheless, they mastered us fairly handily the last time we crossed swords (two World Cup qualifiers in 2013) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is, on his better days, virtually impossible to contain. The Italians will also be justified in suspecting that their overall potency compares favourably to ours. And as for Belgium, their rise to No. 1 in the world rankings hasn’t been by accident. The talent in their ranks is frightening, and although Wales showed everyone how it might be done by slaying them last summer in Cardiff, we will have our work cut out merely to live with them.
So, there ought to be no illusions in anyone’s mind that we enter this great adventure as anything other than rank outsiders. Our overall talent levels are not strikingly different from what they were four years ago, but we have certainly ‘traded up’ in the managerial stakes. Martin O’Neill represents an immeasurable improvement on the superannuated Italian fossil who rode a very fortunate draw to the Finals last time out, and the spirit in the camp seems (as ever) bulletproof. All that apart, you can’t put a price on the spine-tingling excitement of knowing what lies ahead, the anticipation, the months of scanning the permutations, the prospect of Paris, Lille and Bordeaux in the summertime. The worst that can happen is that we reproduce the horrors of four years ago, in which case it will still have been a worthwhile adventure. The journey itself is half the fun.
Back in Premier-land, we have witnessed a season of staggering unpredictability. With 60 per cent of the season gone, the champions and prohibitive pre-season title favourites, Chelsea, fester in a humiliating 13th place. Jose has left us (one hopes not for too long, he remains magnificent entertainment value), his aura of invincibility shattered, his team transformed from a ruthlessly well-oiled machine to a shapeless rabble.
But it is at the other end of the table that truly psychedelic events are taking place. The pre-season 5,000/1 shots, Leicester City, who this time last year would not have been given an earthly prayer of holding on to their top-flight status, are still there, top of the pile, clear of the rest, blazing the trail, defying gravity. It is a stunning achievement, without any precedent since the Premiership’s Year Zero. You really have to go back to 1993, when Norwich City mounted a sustained title challenge, for the last time a club of such modest means went toe-to-toe with the superpowers. But the two-and-a-bit decades since have witnessed a massive unlevelling of the playing field, which was supposed to have rendered the top four a completely closed shop. At various points, Blackburn, Leeds and Newcastle have temporarily crashed the ‘elite’, but even they had money to burn compared to this Leicester vintage. You really have to rub your eyes, week after week, to make sure it is actually happening.
Can they keep it up? Well, the bookies are no longer taking chances, and current odds of 8/1 suggest that the Foxes are being taken very seriously indeed. It seems now to be a four-horse race: fans of Manchester United and Liverpool (of whom there is hardly a shortage) will peruse the table and suggest that they’re still in with a theoretical shout, but it really is all but impossible to seriously advance a case for either of them to make up the ground already ceded. Realistically, this thing will be slugged out between Tottenham, Arsenal, Leicester and Man City. Foul Play suggested to you all back in August that the single standout bet of the season was a price of 13/2 against for Spurs to crack the top four, and that the 150/1 about them winning the title was a price so insulting and dismissive as to verge on the criminally insane. Tragically, absolute chaos (hiya, stalker!) was engulfing my off-field life at the time, and I never quite got around to backing them, an oversight which I’ve had cause to repent at leisure as this hugely efficient, super-fit unit has gone from strength to strength. They appear especially adept at out-lasting opponents, turning draws into wins and defeats into draws in the closing stages of games, and in a season where the title’s very clearly up for grabs and they lie five points off the pace, they could well do the unthinkable. Spurs can win this, make no mistake.
Arsenal, for their part, look closer than at any point in the last decade. Since 2005, you’ve been able to set your watch by a predictable plot-line whereby they would weave pretty passing patterns all day long, dazzle ‘lesser’ teams with sheer brilliance, and reliably implode every time they engaged fellow heavyweights in combat. While their m.o. hasn’t changed all that dramatically, these Gunners are a different beast: more ruthless, lethal on the counter, swifter to the point, less bothered about monopolising possession, and altogether more efficient. Crucially, they have added three world-class operators in the last couple of years: Messrs Cech, Ozil and Sanchez. Goalkeeping had been the Gunners’ glaring weakness ever since Jens Lehmann moved on, and we’re only now seeing just what a massive difference a truly great one can make. If they break their title drought this season, Cech ought to be a cert for Player of the Year.
But – and perhaps I am entering the Fan Zone where pure faith takes over – I’ve still got to go with Manchester City. I stuck a fairly chunky wad on them pre-season at a most inviting 3/1, and I still think it’s in fairly good hands. Any long-term injury to the inestimably magnificent Sergio Aguero would instantly transform that assessment, but one just senses City have a higher ceiling of performance than any of the other trio. Plenty of points have been frittered away thus far, and City’s away form has been especially mediocre (16 points from 11 games) but they have remained in touch, and there is a strong argument that performances have been better than results. Will the announcement that Pep Guardiola is to take over from Manuel Pellegrini in July unsettle the Blues? I suspect not.
A recent visit to Watford may have been especially instructive: the weather was hideous, the Hornets buzzing, City very much off their game, and with 10 minutes left they were 1-0 down. It didn’t matter: three minutes later, two moments of absolute magic from Toure and Aguero had turned it around. It was precisely the sort of display that wins titles, and I think we will see a few more of those down the closing stretch.
But, as ever, events on the field might overtake us. Enjoy ’em to the max: that’s what they’re for.