THERE ARE some prizes in sport that do not appear to be worth winning. The newly formed Europa League seems an insufficient reward for an epic competition comprising 23 match days.
Throughout its 18-year history the Premier League has stood haughtily aloof from such concerns, but apparently not this season. The world-famous 25kg of solid silver with a golden crown has become the trophy that no one wants to win, at least to judge from the results of the leading contenders.
On the last occasion Arsenal won the title, six years ago, they went through the league campaign without losing a game, an achievement that seems almost as removed from the present day as the only other team to survive a season unbeaten, Preston North End, in 1888-89. Sol Campbell may have stood peering out of the tunnel at his new team-mates -- a suitably distant stance for an enigmatic man -- but Arsenal's 'Invincibles' belong in another age.
Arsene Wenger predicted at the halfway stage that 83 points from 38 matches would be enough to win the title, although the Arsenal manager may have overestimated the potency of the pretenders to Manchester United's crown. It has almost reached the stage where a comfortable win for a 'big four' team registers as a shock in itself. Arsenal gave their fans a fright by handing Bolton Wanderers a two-goal lead through some frighteningly inept defending last night, but they are not the only ones to have taken their eyes off the ball. As stunning as Chelsea's 7-2 rout of Sunderland was on Saturday, it was only their third win in seven league matches, hardly the form of authoritative champions.
United have also slipped up frequently to let Arsenal back into the title race, although Wenger's side have seemed reluctant to take advantage. In their previous home game 12 days ago Arsenal were unable to beat an injury-ravaged Everton, while Bolton exposed big deficiencies in their defence.
As at Anfield before Christmas, Wenger's half-time team-talk was the key, with the manager reminding his players what they had to gain in the looming 45 minutes, and, even more significantly, to lose. Instead of caving under the pressure, Arsenal responded with a performance of real character, suggesting that they do possess the stomach for the intense battle of a title race. As ever, Cesc Fabregas led his team-mates by example, and may even have won the match on his own were it not for Tomas Rosicky and Thomas Vermaelen.
Arsenal are a long way from being crowned champions but have at least shown that the Premier League is a prize worth fighting for.