30 December 2013

Race for the Title: Can Arsenal stay top of the table?

We've reached the halfway point of the season, 19 matches played, 19 left, and Arsenal reached this juncture with 42 points, roughly half of what recent champions have finished with—whether this pace would be enough to stay atop the table is anyone's guess, but it does look to be shaping up as a three-team race between us, Man City, and Chelsea, with only two points separating first from third.

Of course, other teams could surge forward to complicate the picture even further. Everton, playing attractive, engaging football under Roberto Martinez, have climbed to fourth. Man U is showing signs of recovery after an uneven first half. Liverpool, despite being so shorn of options that they had to throw on a 19-year old defender into the midfield against Chelsea, could explode or implode depending on Suarez's response to the pressure. I refuse to rule out Spurs despite their struggles. Who knows? Maybe Tim Sherwood actually knows what he's doing. After all, he is a self-proclaimed Arsenal fan. We'll see.

Speaking after the win over Newcastle, Arsène was cautiously optimistic as he assessed our status:
Look, we believe in ourselves and we are determined to give our best, absolutely, and to turn back on the season at the end and think we have given our best. I hope it will be enough, of course, but it's a long way to go. It's too early to say [that we will finish in first place].We have come out of very difficult games—we have played Everton, we have played Manchester City, Chelsea, at West Ham and Newcastle. We have dropped some points, but I felt it was more down to the heavy schedule and the short recovery time we have had than to the difficulty of the games.
Those dropped points—two at Goodison Park, three at the Ethihad, and two at home to Chelsea—are not fatal, at least not yet. Aside from the opening-day loss to Aston Villa, we've done well to minimize dropped-points of the sort that title-challengers shouldn't drop. It's really only the draw at West Brom that stands out as a red-mark. However, the down-side to this is that other contenders have been sloppier but remain only a point or two behind. Man City's form on the road has slowed them down considerably, and Chelsea's recent goal-drought threatens to slow them as well.

However, we can't rely on those factors if we're going to claim the title. We've come through a difficult stretch of fixtures, but so too have Chelsea and Man City. Each of us have advanced to the Champions League and the FA Cup, and Man City continues in the Capital One Cup as well. Will Chelsea's depth and Mourinho's negative style be enough to see Chelsea trudge to the top? Will Man City find a way to win away from the Etihad? Will someone else among the next five clubs shoulder their way into the conversation?

For now, it looks like we have a crazy competition on our hands, and, dare I say it? Yes, I do. We look to be getting stronger. Theo and Poldi are back, Cazorla's looking livelier, and the Ox and Sanogo (for what he's worth will return soon. Even Abou "like a new signing" Diaby (yes, yes, I know) could rejoin the fray in March. In the meantime, there's a lot of talk of an actual signing or two in January. I don't see Chelsea or Man City making any moves, in part because of how stocked each of them already is. Then again, they're bankrolled by some pretty wealthy owners, so anything's possible.

Looking at schedules, Chelsea might have the most-favorable one going forward, hosting Man U, Everton, Spurs, and us while facing trips to the Etihad and Anfield. Man City looks to have the most-difficult schedule, especially considering their record away from home: trips to White Hart Lane, Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield, and Goodison Park. Their only chance to trounce other contenders at home will be Chelsea's visit. We're somewhere in the middle, it seems, with visits from Man U and Man City and trips to Anfield, White Hart Lane, Stamford Bridge, and Goodison Park. Of course, there's a baker's dozen of other fixtures to consider.

After years of scrabbling for fourth place and hoping for results elsewhere to go our way, it feels good to consider how to hold onto first place. We don't quite control our destiny yet, but consider that, last year, we had to wait until the second week of February, 26 matches gone, to reach 44 points. With seven matches between now and then, could we reach 60 points? Home versus Cardiff, at Aston Villa, home versus Fulham, at Southampton, home versus Crystal Palace, at Anfield, home versus Man U. Let's hope so—and let's see if that puts some distance between us and our rivals.

Next up: that visit from Cardiff. We'll take a closer look at that one. 'Til next time, thanks for your visit!