A peek at those who might be pesky

There is only one thing more edacious to a blogger than an international break. Good form backed up by pleasing performances. That’s not necessarily a revelation of the darkness of the human psyche. We’re not all grief junkies. It’s just natural that “well done, more of the same” doesn’t spin into a 1500 word yarn quite as seamlessly as one’s endless theories as to why the sky is falling in. I wouldn’t much complain if I had to spend an entire season dreaming up filthy limericks to fill this here air space.

I could discuss Samir Nasri’s comments, but I care about them about as much as I care about the political convictions of Premier League managers. Actually, I think di Canio’s “politics”- which are hardly new information – threatened to break out into an interesting ethical discussion. But as per usual, the mainstream media sinks its teeth into the debate and saturates it remorselessly with their squealing brand of hysteria until you just stop giving a tiny shit about the whole issue. As Philippe Auclair termed it,  “Football is becoming an echo chamber with everybody screaming. If that sounds like hell, it’s because it is.”

Finishing in the top 4 is effectively the sole focus of the season now (isn’t it always? Arf, arf), I thought it might be appropriate to peer over the fence and into eyeballs of our foes. There are many rivers to cross and many forks in the road between now and mid May. Some of the teams in the mix still have to play one another. Everton have to travel to Arsenal, Spurs and on the season’s concluding weekend, Chelsea.

It’s more than likely that Spurs will travel to play Chelsea in the penultimate game of the season. By then, you’d suspect that Arsenal will be clearer about their preferred result in that game, assuming of course that it’s not inconsequential to us. There is an excellent chance that we will play at home to Wigan on the same night that two of our rivals for 3rd and 4th face off. Assuming that the three London rivals are still in touch with one another at that stage, you have to think that will be the pivotal midweek in deciding who goes home with the Champions League prom queen and who ends up fingering the Europa League in the toilets.

Of course, the fact that Chelsea and Tottenham are still embroiled in that competition causes the brew to fizz and the plot to thicken further. The rescheduling of Tottenham’s trip to Stamford Bridge has rather unwittingly done Spurs a favour. It means that they have the weekend off immediately following their trip to Basel in Europe. Tottenham have lost at Goodison Park, Anfield and the Etihad after their Thursday night excursions.

Everton cannot be discounted from the mix. They are only two points behind Arsenal with a fixture against us upcoming. It will be a tough ask for them to go to all three of London’s frontrunners before the season is out, but it at least keeps their fate largely in their own hands. The Toffees don’t have a big squad, but their season hasn’t fallen apart in the manner that I suspected it would after their demoralising cup exit to Wigan. Since then, they’ve taken 6 points from two games. However, I just don’t see Everton quite having the staying power.

They have won only 4 games on the road this season, so it would take quite the upturn in fortunes for them to take the 7 point minimum they would require from their triumvirate of capital engagements. They haven’t played away from home in six weeks and when last they did, they lost at Carrow Road. (What kind of tinpot outfit loses there?!) Their early season talisman, Marouane Fellaini, seems to have had his head turned and David Moyes isn’t making the most convincing noises given that his contract expires in the summer.

Despite their recent wobble, I think Tottenham look like a smarter, leaner side under Villas Boas. Redknapp had worked out that Gareth Bale is more dangerous when you allow him to roam, but he couldn’t compensate for the loss of shape that can entail. Villas Boas appears to have cracked that by playing the more functional Sigurdsson in the front three to plug the gaps. In effect, Arsenal are working within the same parameters in an attempt to get the best out of Santi Cazorla. Playing him from left, right, swapping him with Wilshere and with Rosicky on Saturday. Arsenal are trying to work out how to give their little Spaniard total liberty without becoming lopsided.

With the additions of Verthongen and “sweeper keeper” Lloris, Spurs are able to play the high line the manager favours and squeeze the pitch. Basically, they’re showing up Redknapp’s “just fackin run araand a bit” monologue for the populist rubbish that it is. Villas Boas has had more injuries to deal with than Redknapp had last season too. Sandro, Assou Ekotto and Kaboul have all been long term ailments and Defoe and Adebayor have rarely been available in concert. I don’t think Spurs will buckle and fall apart in the hilarious fashion to which we’ve become accustomed.

Yet their fixture list isn’t especially kind. With Everton and Manchester City to come at home and trips to Chelsea and Wigan Athletic on the horizon. Games against teams fighting relegation can be as arduous as encounters with title challengers come April. For that reason, Arsenal fans might be forgiven for silently willing Sunderland to stay in the mire until their final day trip to N17. Tottenham have a harder run in than Arsenal on paper. But last season Arsenal’s run in included a trip to QPR and home games against Norwich and Wigan, as it does again in 2013. We took one point from those three matches in spring 2012.

As for Chelsea, I’m genuinely surprised that they are still figuring in the conversation. Their football club is a circus, but they have so much quality in their squad, I’ve just always expected them to pull away. Even if Rafa took to giving his teamtalks through the medium of interpretive dance, I imagine Juan Mata or Eden Hazard would have enough magic in their boots to stop the clown car from exploding completely. In truth, I still have that impression. Benitez though, has pressing football problems that go beyond crudely drawn A4 banners in the Stamford Bridge crowd.

Like Villas Boas, he has tried to implement a high defensive line that squeezes the pitch. A couple of quite hilarious gifs encapsulate why John Terry is becoming conversant with the Chelsea bench due to his lack of mobility. Frank Lampard is playing for his goalscoring record and not his team and Chelsea are still elbow deep on three fronts.

In truth, I think Chelsea will gradually ease into third place much in the same way I think Everton will jockey with Liverpool for 6th and 7th. I have always felt that 4th place would be a North London showdown, with May 13th looking like the pivotal date, even though fixtures to be played on that date are currently hypothetical. The fortunes of Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal will rest largely on Mata, Bale and Cazorla for my money. Gentlemen, start your engines. This has the potential to be a race reminiscent of Kowalski in Vanishing Point. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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