Wednesday, February 27, 2008

11 games to go

With less than a third of the games to go, the season is drawing to a predictably dramatic finish – with three teams having a legitimate claim on winning the title, and no less than five others targeting the highly-coveted fourth spot.

In this post, I will take a look at the remaining fixtures for Arsenal, Man Utd and Chelsea and how they stack up against each other - and I will do it despite the fact that last weekend’s highly improbable events (and, somewhat consequently, results) may render the entire exercise hopelessly meaningless.

Let’s start with where we are at...

...and then take a look at the games left: (the teams have been ordered by current table ranking)

First off, the remaining fixtures of Arsenal and Man Utd seem oddly similar. Five of their fixtures are identical (those grayed out) and, in general, the others seem quite balanced. So, which games will make the difference?

The games against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Both Arsenal (on 3/23) and Man Utd (on 4/26) are going to visit Stamford Bridge. In terms of preceding mid-week fixtures, Arsenal seems to have a (potential) edge: their game comes 4 days after Chelsea's Carling Cup final rematch at White Hart Lane, while the Man Utd game comes after the Champions League semifinal first leg. (for both teams)

The games against fourth-spot contenders
Both Arsenal and United play Liverpool and Aston Villa at home (Arsenal as early as this weekend) so there is sensible parity there. The difference may be the Arsenal - Everton game at the Emirates in the penultimate match day of the season, which could have meaningful implications for both teams. We could be looking at sealing the Premiership title with a win, whereas Everton could clinch the fourth spot if they get a tie or a win.

Tricky mid-table fixtures for United (away to Blackburn, home to West Ham)
Blackburn has never been an easy place to go to (particularly late in the season, with the potential for an UEFA Cup spot potentially looming). West Ham provided a most painful upset earlier in the season.

Last game of the season
Both Arsenal and Man Utd are playing their last game of the season away to teams who may very well be in the throws of relegation and in need of a result to keep them in the Premiership. Under perfectly similar circumstances, is Arsenal’s trip to Sunderland tougher than United’s trip to Wigan? Although both teams are being managed by former Ferguson players, their teams’ relegation status on that day may play a bigger part.

Finally - the game at Old Trafford (4/13)
There is a good chance that, in the end, the title will depend on the outcome of the game between the two top title contenders. A defeat there would mean that we would have to do better than United at Chelsea (win if they tie or lose, tie if they lose) – that, of course, assuming that we perform similarly in the other fixtures.

…Just for the fun of it, if we throw the Chelsea fixtures into the mix, one striking point:

Chelsea arguably has a tougher fixture list – particularly away
Trips to Everton, Manchester City and Spurs make for a comparatively tougher remainder of the season and should compensate for the advantage of hosting both Arsenal and Man Utd at Stamford Bridge. Trips to West Ham and Newcastle (the latter in the penultimate game of the season, when they could realistically be looking at relegation) could prove very difficult as well.

Finally, a couple of key dates (subject to change, depending on the schedule of future FA Cup and Champions League fixtures)

3/23: Chelsea – Arsenal and Man Utd – Liverpool
4/13: Man Utd – Arsenal
4/26: Chelsea – Man Utd
5/11: Sunderland – Arsenal and Wigan – Man Utd

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