Hope for Arsenal if they keep beating bad teams
Forget Super Sunday showdowns, titles often decided in low-key fixtures
FOR the English teams who have the quality to reach the last 16 of the Champions League, there is no real reason why they wouldn't expect to beat the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League home and away throughout the season.
From the 10 games against the teams placed sixth to 10th, a record of six wins, two draws and two defeats wouldn't be an unreasonable target.
It's a simplistic way of looking at things but that would leave a team with 78 points from 30 games and, in the remaining eight against the teams placed second to fifth, a couple of wins and draws would bring the points tally into the mid-80s, which is certainly in the region of a total that would win the title.
"If you calculate Southampton, Cardiff and the game against West Bromwich, if we won those three games, we could have been top of the league," said Patrice Evra, with a certain amount of "if my auntie was my uncle" logic. "That's why we are really frustrated and really upset."
Evra's expression of irritation came before United's game against Tottenham at the end of last month before they drew at White Hart Lane and lost at home to Everton and Newcastle. He wasn't as angry with the league position so much as he was with dropping eight points against three inferior teams, because a player who has won five Premier League titles knows that losing points against those teams will end your chances far quicker than being beaten by the ones around you.
On Saturday, Manchester City crushed Arsenal with a display of dominance which sounded a warning so loud that, in certain analysis, you'd wonder why other teams bother showing up for the next few months.
It shone a light on Arsenal's title aspirations and again raised the ridiculous argument that, after 16 games, it was somehow a quirk of the fixture list that Arsenal still find themselves two points clear -- a position for which every team in the league would swap.
Unlike United, Arsenal haven't dropped many points against teams they would expect to beat and they have created a cushion for themselves which means results like Saturday's should not prove disastrous.
Even in a worst case scenario of defeat to Chelsea, victories against West Ham and Newcastle would see them, at worst, one point off the top of the table on New Year's Day, halfway through the season.
Obviously, having had the chance to go seven points clear had they beaten Everton last weekend, such a scenario would be disappointing but as long as Arsenal keep beating the teams they should beat this season, they won't be far away in May.
In four games against Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal, City have won by an aggregate score of 19-5, an awesome achievement which shows that, in a one-off game, they are the strongest team in the league.
The common denominator in those games is that they have all come at home, and while much of the focus has been on Arsenal's apparent easy fixture list, the fact that City must travel to Old Trafford, Goodison Park, White Hart Lane and the Emirates in the second half of the season has been largely ignored.
There have been seven games this season so far in which Arsenal and City have had identical fixtures, with both having hosted Hull City, Everton, Norwich and Tottenham while travelling to play Cardiff, Sunderland and West Brom. From those 21 points available, Arsenal have taken 17, two more than City.
The 3-2 victory in Munich may well prove to be the spur to inspire City on the road but, if they come up short this season, it will be losing away at the likes of Cardiff and Sunderland which will haunt Manuel Pellegrini.
Despite a certain amount of straw-clutching from Arsene Wenger after the game about fixture scheduling and poor refereeing decisions, there is little doubt that Arsenal have a slim chance of beating City in any game -- but that's not the same thing as not being able to finish the season ahead of them in the league.
In the last five Premier Leagues which have been decided by six points or fewer, it's only twice that the team that has won the league has taken maximum points from the games between the top two that season.
Manchester City beat United 6-1 and 1-0 in 2011/12 before winning the league on goal difference and in 2009/10, Chelsea won the league by a point after 2-1 and 1-0 wins against second-placed Manchester United.
The previous year, Liverpool took six points off United but still finished four points behind them, and in the previous two seasons, United and Chelsea shared the points (three each and two each) as United won both titles.
In the most recent of those examples, United dropped two points against Everton having been 4-2 up after 83 minutes but the end-of-season rot really started with six games remaining with a 1-0 defeat to Wigan who, at that point, had won six of their 32 league games. It was the sort of listless performance against poor opposition that was virtually eradicated the following season and provided the foundation for Alex Ferguson's final title in charge.
Last season, United and City played 20 games against teams who, at the time, were in the bottom half of the league and from the 60 points available, United took 57, 10 more than City, who eventually finished 11 points behind them.
For all the Super Sunday hype and attention that's focused on the glamour games, the reality that might prove some consolation to Arsenal is that many leagues have been won in games when nobody is really watching.