Friday, December 14, 2007

When Sunday Comes...........

Arsenal vs Chelsea; Liverpool vs Manchester United

The sun isn't shining as brightly as it was a few weeks ago. There are some hints of a few dark clouds hovering on the horizon. Although the clouds are not causing complete darkness, they are blocking the sun rays. So the easiest way to bring the sunshine back is to dispense one cloud at a time. Sunday's game against Chelsea offers a chance towards restoring a sunny weather outlook.

Age does weaken one's memory. But I do recall that more than three years ago, 5 dropped points in the first half of the season was not much cause for alarm. Ofcourse, the nature of the league has changed in the last three seasons. Wenger's previous analysis of 75 points being good enough to win the league is no longer true. In fact, the bar has been pushed much higher and it started with Arsenal's unbeaten league season in 2004.


The points of the top two teams and their cumulative points total over the last few seasons:
  • 1999/00: Man Utd (91), Arsenal (73), Total: 164

  • 2000/01: Man Utd (80), Arsenal (70), Total: 150

  • 2001/02: Arsenal (87), Liverpool (80) Total: 167

  • 2002/03: Man Utd (83), Arsenal (78), Total: 161

  • 2003/04: Arsenal (90), Chelsea (79) Total: 169

  • 2004/05: Chelsea (95), Arsenal (83), Total: 178

  • 2005/06: Chelsea (91), Man Utd (83), Total: 174

  • 2006/07: Man Utd (89), Chelsea (83), Total: 172

  • The 2004/05 season stands out not only for Chelsea's point total of 95 but the high number of points the second placed team, Arsenal, grabbed. Since that season, the second placed team has earned 83 points, a total which would have been good enough to win the league in two of Man Utd's triumphs in 2001 & 2003. So if 90 points are the new approximate standard to guarantee finishing the season on top, that leaves an error margin of 24 points (out of the possible 114 points available from 38 games). Dropping 24 points over 38 games does not leave too much room for error. But these point totals only show a narrow view at the top. An accurate picture has to take into account point totals of all the league teams. Last year, the third & fourth place teams (Liverpool and Arsenal) only got 68 points each, much lower than the points earned by previous years third place teams (75 in 2003/04, 77 in 04/05, 82 in 05/06). And also at the bottom end, there have been a few teams that have performed worse than previously. The lowest dip at the bottom was in the 2005/06 season when the bottom two earned only 45 points (compared to the range of 58 - 66 over the last few years) with Sunderland only getting 15 points (West Brom got 30).

    But the statistics can only give a picture of the past. If in a particular season, there are 2-3 strong teams setting a blistering pace, then the final tally of points required to win a title will be dictated by how many points the chasing teams earn. For example, the huge number of dropped points by the chasing pack account for the low total of 80 points needed to win the 2000/01 season. So far this season after 16 games only three points separate the top three.

    Law of Averages:

    Arsenal have not beaten Chelsea in the last 6 league games. In order to look at Arsenal's current poor results against Chelsea, one has to look back at that record breaking unbeaten season. In 2003/04, Arsenal met Chelsea 5 times – two league, one F.A Cup and two Champions League games. Arsenal beat Chelsea three times by a 2-1 margin (including a memorable F.A Cup win with two superb Reyes goals) before the Champions league tie. The first leg at Highbury ended 1-1 and the second leg was tied 1-1 with 4 minutes to go. Then the law of averages turned on its head and Arsenal lost 2-1. It seems that Arsenal had used up their quota of wins against Chelsea because since that season Arsenal have not beaten Chelsea in any competition.
    Had Arsenal gotten past Chelsea in that Champions League tie, they had a great chance to advance to the final, where they would have met Porto, managed by a certain Jose. But Arsenal didn't have to wait long to clash with the un-shaven one.

    The painful years with Jose Mourinho:

    Jose arrived at Highbury for the first time on Dec 10, 2004 with his Chelsea team. I can't forget this game because it also marked my first visit to Highbury. But since I could not get a ticket, I had to make do with seeing Highbury from the outside (although a year later I found out from Rick B. that he had a ticket for me). So I soaked in as much pre-game atmosphere as I could. When the Chelsea bus arrived first, I expected a chorus of boos to ring out. But there was almost complete silence. Not one fan around me shouted anything. It was so quiet that I could even hear the hoofs of the police horses marching around. The silence prompted a solitary Chelsea fan to shout out something along the lines of how nervous everyone was. And still no one said anything. All the Chelsea players got off from the bus and headed up the stairs. Then Jose stepped out and finally a chorus of boos rang out. But Jose simply looked towards the fans, smiled and waved. That only increased the jeering but he appeared to be relishing the hatred.

    The arrival of the Arsenal bus was greeted by loud cheers and every player was duly greeted. Henry got of the bus and quickly jogged up the stairs without even looking sideways. He had his headphones on and appeared focused (his quick goal did indeed prove he was in game mode). Only two Arsenal players looked towards the crowd, one of them being Reyes. But Reyes's smile and wave to the crowd appeared more accidental than anything -- his bag was a bit too big for him and he almost stumbled as he got off the bus. So that led to some fans cheering him and he smiled back. Ofcourse, the loudest cheers were reserved for Arsene Wenger who stopped at the top of the steps and waved towards the fans in all directions.
    Arsenal should have won that game by a 3-2 or 4-2 margin. But at that final while of a pulsating 2-2 draw, I never imaged that this would have been Arsenal's best chance of beating a Jose lead Chelsea team. The return fixture ended 0-0 and subsequent league games with the Blues ended 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 1-1 along with 2-1 defeats in the Carling Cup final and Charity Shield.

    But Jose is no longer there. So…

    When Sunday comes

    Will the normal balance of the universe be restored and Arsenal return to winning ways against Chelsea? Ofcourse, sunday is also a big day for that other important clash between Liverpool and Manchester. Rafa Benitez & Liverpool also have a need to restore their own universal order over Man Utd. Rafa may have outsmarted Jose on a few occasions (one league & F.A Cup plus two Champions League wins) but he has yet to lead his Liverpool team to a victory over Man Utd in the league; Liverpool's 1-0 win over Man Utd in a 2005/06 F.A Cup tie is the only time Rafa got the upper head on Ferguson.

    Ofcourse, an Arsenal win coupled with a Liverpool victory would help ease the pain of last weekend when both teams suffered their first league defeats. But it won't be easy. Sunday will be full of nerves and tense battles. The only thing I am willing to say with certainty is that Senderos will have a peaceful sleep on Sat night as Drogba is not playing. But Senderos was never going to be in the starting line-up anyhow. Now, that is a soothing thought given his recent form or lack of it.

    Ah, when sunday comes, sleep will not matter! A 6:30 am (mountain time) kick-off for the Liverpool-ManU game followed by the 9 am Arsenal vs Chelsea game.

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