Ritchie Humphreys, the Chesterfield midfielder who is chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, told last night’s awards dinner in London that it had been a great Premier League title race and, since a table of Chelsea players had just arrived hot-foot from their satisfyingly scoreless encounter at Arsenal, I suppose it was only polite to say that. But it has been a tedious title race.
After last season’s three-horse thriller, in which Liverpool so splendidly kept up with Manchester City until Steven Gerrard made his isolated error against Chelsea at Anfield, Jose Mourinho’s team have been so dominant that interest has been mainly focused on the jockeying for second, third and fourth place, to which Arsenal ultimately returned yesterday upon sensing, correctly, that their valiant attempts to break down a defence brilliantly marshalled by John Terry would fail.
The dearth of challenge to the constant leaders has been no fault of Newcastle United – the dimly remembered Newcastle of Alan Pardew, who beat Chelsea 2-1 at St James’ Park in early December, a couple of weeks before their manager decided to take the ‘’Pardew Out’’ brigade’s advice and move to Crystal Palace – or Tottenham Hotspur, who so memorably spanked Chelsea 5-3 at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day.
But City have been nowhere near consistently productive enough to take advantage of such slips, Liverpool have regressed and Arsenal have punched their weight only since, at some stage after their own chastening New Year experience – at Southampton they suffered their fifth League defeat of the campaign – they seemed to come to understand that toil and tactics were not dirty words. On January 18 they so impressively embraced these concept that City were overcome at the Etihad and this had proved a springboard for Arsene Wenger’s men, who have taken 25 points out of 30 while earning the right to defend the FA Cup at Wembley.
At least Arsenal have some hope of competing with Chelsea next season. Although Wenger failed in his 13th attempt to beat Mourinho, it was often an enthrallingly tight match at the Emirates and, if an extra edge were needed to the immediate future of this London rivalry, Mourinho provided it afterwards. So his team were ‘’boring, boring Chelsea’’, according to the Arsenal fans? He was happy to define ‘’boring’’ for them as ‘’10 years without a title…that’s very boring…you support a club and you’re waiting, waiting, waiting for so many years…’’
Actually it’s going to be 11 years unless Chelsea somehow fail to get the maximum of two wins required from their concluding five matches – and that’s only if Arsenal win each of their five.
Even if Chelsea were to lose at Leicester City on Wednesday – and, with Nigel Pearson’s men displaying such a passion to stay in the top League, that cannot be ruled out – there would be little fear in the hearts of their supporters, more a frustration that the hoped-for party when Crystal Palace come to the Bridge on Sunday cannot be turned into a full-scale celebration.
The following night, Arsenal are away to Steve Bruce’s Hull City, a team who showed much of the Leicester spirit in winning at Palace at Saturday. Those of us present marvelled yet again at how the prospect of Premier League death (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) concentrates the mind wonderfully. Thank goodness for this relegation dogfight, which is about to feature a revived Aston Villa needing points at home to Everton and Queens Park Rangers in the last-chance saloon at Liverpool, for the upcoming top-fight weekend would be thin without it.