15 September 2006

Can you win the League in September?

I know I am putting too much emphasis on the early season games; it’s not even October, and I’ve repeatedly worried about Liverpool’s chances vis-à-vis Chelsea, United, and the rest. But for some reason this year the FA has scheduled two very big games that will go a long way in deciding the course of this season, and some teams haven’t even played five games yet.

Manchester United v Arsenal has been one of the defining fixtures of the season for going on five years. From the late 90s until Chelski’s sudden financial windfall, these were the two top teams in England. Manchester United and Arsenal finished #1 or #2 every year from 1998 until 2003, save 2001. Their first meeting this season couldn't come at a worse time for Arsenal. As early as it is, Arsenal needs this game simply to keep pace with the rest of the league. A poor start has seen them fail to win a game in their first three outings, and they currently sit in 17th place. Manchester United has taken 4 out of 4, but has beaten powerhouses such as Fulham, Watford, and Charlton, and failed to convince in a 1-0 win at Tottenham.

These games are always fun. There’s the pizza throwing incident, the penalty spot incident, Wenger v Fergie, Keane v Vieira. This game will have a slightly different look to it, as Keane and Vieira have moved on, Giggs will miss the game due to injury, as might Thierry Henry. We haven’t heard any spittle-flecked drunken ramblings from Slur Alex or any snide French asides from Wenger, and the BBC hasn’t manufactured any pseudo-drama between the two teams, but make no mistake about it, this will be a very important and very hard fought game.

Liverpool v Chelsea (full preview later) is the teams’ 12th meeting in the past three years. Liverpool has stifled Chelsea in nearly every tournament game, save the 2005 Carling Cup Final, but Chelsea has owned Liverpool in the league, winning the last four on the trot. Benitez and Mourinho have become full-on rivals, with lovely tête-à-têtes, refusals of handshakes, and out and out mind games that became so popular between Fergie and Wenger in their heyday. Liverpool/Chelsea has turned into a sort of rivalry; it’s not Liverpool/United or Liverpool/Everton, but it’s a game that brings the fans out, and one that Liverpool will want to win at any cost.

These two games will go a long way in setting the tone for the campaign. If both Arsenal and Liverpool lose, there’s an excellent chance Chelsea and United will get away, and both Arsenal and Liverpool will be forced to rely on them dropping points to other teams. It’s a pity for both Liverpool and Arsenal that these are away games, as it’s always easier to be the underdog at home, but you must play the hand you are dealt. At least a draw for both teams is close to essential; a loss, and both managers will be forced to answer questions about the quality of their squad for the next month or more, and make changes before the season really gets away.

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