21 March 2022

Rivals' Roundup #30: nervous, then anxious, then wary, then apprehensive, then kind of sleepy...

We're starting to separate the wheat from the chaff here as we head into the run-in, and it looks we'll be able to shorten this round-up by at least one club. Wolves are done and dusted after a surprise loss at home to Leeds. As we all know full-well, it is literally impossible to defend a lead once you go down a man as Wolves did. It just never happens. Ever. Also about ready for a pink slip are West Ham after ther capitulation to Tottenham (more on that later). At a risk of sounding overly confident, it's beginning to look a little bit like we might consider seeing ourselves as having somewhat of an inside track on a fourth-place finish—but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

3. Chelsea (28 played, 17W 8D 3L: 59 pts.).
Okay, I'll be honest. I'm about ready to excise (exorcise?) Chelsea...but not just yet. On one hand, they're five points clear of us, having played the same number of matches. On the other, they've progressed in both the FA Cup  (and will face Crystal Palace) and in the Champions League (and face Real Madrid). We also have a chance to pin them back whenever it is we go to Stamford Bridge. There's so much chaos and confusion over there that it's hard to know just what the hell is going on. As it currently stands, sharks are circling; rumours of Tuchel to Man U and RĂ¼diger to Juventus are just the tip of the iceberg (sorry to mix metaphors...or is it idioms? Farewell, sweet Concord.). It's anyone's guess as to how this all will affect the squad: will they go down with the ship, fighting heroically to the last man, or will they desert it like so many deserting rats? 

4. Arsenal (28 played, 17W 3D 8L: 54 pts.).
After a disappointing home loss to Liverpool, one in which we did at least look competitive for long stretches, one might trot out the tired old phrase "moral victory." One would be wrong. On one hand, one would be right to draw some consolation or even encouragement from the fact that we had chances but didn't take them and were undone by a few breakdowns. On the other, all have to admit that the top sides rarely if ever succumb to those flaws. Fortunately, there was balm for the soul at Villa Park, where we dominated a spirited side for the better part of an hour, found a tidy goal, and might feel a bit aggrieved not to have come away with a better goal difference. It's not often one holds an opponent to no shots on goal for an entire half. It may be too much to dream of reeling Chelsea in, but something similar could be said for rivals hoping to reel us in.

5. Tottenham (29 played, (16W 3D 10L: 51 pts.).
Now, we're into the dregs.Tottenham made the most of Moyes's decision/need to play most of his key players for all of West Ham's clash with Sevilla on Thursday; the Hammers looked about as interested in winning as the did the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters or whichever side has been chosen to lose at a retired player's testimonial. On one hand, this result breathes new life into the cadaver of a corpse of a dead horse that is "Tottenaham have found their footing under Conte" narrative (previous installments have included Man City 2-3 Tottenham and Tottenham 3-1 Brighton, each of which was followed by a very Spursy loss, somewhat driving a stake through the walking undead narrative that is Tottneham's revival. Still, we would be reckless to underestimate just how squeaky things are getting here. Yes, we have a game in hand over this Land of Misfit Toys, but they have the softest run-in of anyone around. Surely, not even the likes of Spurs can Spurs that up, can they?

6. Man U (29 played, (14W 8D 7L: 50 pts.).
Also flirting with nibbling at the edge of relevance are these pesky Red Devils. They followed their ingenious plan of letting Ronaldo bag a hat-trick against Tottenham with the somewhat less-ingenious plan of not letting him have any shots on target against Atleti, who dumped them out of the Champions League. It's almost as if Man U don't really have a plan other than to hope that someone does something really, really extraordinary. You've gotta help us, doc. We've tried nothin', and we're all out of ideas. With nothing else to play for, and with the afore-mentioned sharks circling—wait, that was about Chelsea—or was it? There are rumours of Tuchel coming to Man U but also of Rashford leaving and of Ronaldo choosing to leave, so we're back to the mixed metaphor of rats deserting a sinking ship while sharks are circling. We've...come...full...circle... As Man U and Tottenham fight for the scraps that fall to club that falls out of Champions League qualification, it's possible that one or both squads will simply implode, not that I'd ever hope for a second for that to happen.

7. West Ham (30 played, 14W 6D 10L: 48 pts.).
They're like a barnacle clinging to the hull of ship, they are, but it's starting to feel more and more like this lot just can't hold on much longer. After a grueling 120+ minutes to get past Sevilla and into the Europa League and did draw a more-or-less favourable opponent in Lyons. Winning Europa League is still a tall order for a very thin Hammers sqaud, with Barcelona, RB Leipzig, and Atalanta all favoured ahead of them. We saw at the weekend Moyes's dilemma: he has a paper-thin squad full of players who are getting run into the ground. Against a side that they knew that they had to at least draw to keep slender hopes of Champions League qualifcation alive, they were second-best all afternoon, and when you're second-best to Tottenham, well...I don't quite know how to complete that thought without saying something quite cutting but also, let's admit, very fitting. 

The picture is still pretty murky. We have have that inside track, but we also have the trickiest run-in of the clubs we're looking ot stay above. We've been through enough in our support of this club down the years to understand that it is definitely not the time for giddy optimism. It's probably still too early cautious optimism. Tentative caution? Yeah, that's it. That's the feeling to carry.