Playing for second
Let's just award the Prem title to Manchester United right now and move on with our lives.
After all, is there really any reason to continue the Big Tease other than to give delusional Arsenal and Chelsea fans an excuse to drink themselves into a stupor over the next two months? By now, we all get United's lap dance routine: Show a little leg for 88 minutes and scuff in an undeserved goal, sending yet another hapless team to a cold shower.
And yes, I can do the math. I know there are eight games left for the Red Devils and they are only five points clear of Arsenal, which clings desperately to both a match in hand and an impending home game May 1 against United.
I am well aware -- thanks to some very helpful commenters -- that United remains in the muck and mire of three intense competitions, while the Gunners have lowered their expectations from the Quadruple to the Onesie. I even sense another fantasy challenge on the horizon now that Chelsea has emerged, like a Russian bear from hibernation, to resemble its old Double-winning self and claw to within nine points of United. And to think the Blues have done it without a single ruble -- or goal -- in return on their $81 million investment in Iberian hit man Fernando Torres. (Although he'll no doubt start banging them in now that he's found a darling blue headband to match his jersey.)[+] EnlargeIan Kington/AFP/Getty ImagesKeeper crisis: Arsenal's choices right now are between error-prone Manuel Almunia or the back-from-retirement Jens Lehmann.
But please -- if United could survive all of this season's injuries, suspensions, contract disputes and pseudo-managerial bans, the only way it will fail to lift the trophy is if the team joins Sir Alex Ferguson in the stands for the next four games and phones in the title from that white courtesy line Old Trafford so thoughtfully provided for Fergie to communicate with his assistants. Is it just me or did you not think it was weird to see Sir Alex pick up an old-school receiver every few minutes instead of just quietly texting a few instructions? ("U R so gr8 Nani!") I mean, even Bobby Valentine was more subtle when he wore that lame mustache disguise in the dugout.
Layer on top of this the burgeoning reality that Arsenal is showing less testosterone than Justin Bieber and there are only two words that come to mind: foregone conclusion.
By the way, I tried to break it to Arsene Wenger last week that Sir Alex was not about to hand over the opportunity to win the club's record 19th league trophy no matter how pedestrian United might appear, and that Arsenal would have to pry his gnarled Scottish mitts off of it. Yet Wenger certainly has an odd way of trying to wrest control of the one piece of silverware he can still ogle.
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For the third time in a six-week span, Arsenal staged a clown convention at the back. It wasn't quite as hilarious as its slapstick classic against Birmingham in the Carling Cup final, but the result was depressingly familiar. Only the names of the stooges changed, as Manuel Almunia and Sebastien Squillaci proved to be capable understudies for Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny.
While the Gunners engaged in yet another manic comeback to draw against relegation-bound West Brom, they kept one eye on the scoreboard to see how United was faring with Bolton. They must have taken heart from the news that United appeared to be lurching toward a 0-0 draw after going down to 10 men when Jonny Evans went all Texas Chainsaw on Stuart Holden's limb.
Ah, but if we've learned anything over the years about United, it's that scoreline appearances can be deceiving. Just when United looks like a humdrum, run-of-the-mill side, along comes some piece of improvisational brilliance (Wayne Rooney's overhead kick against Man City) or a slice of outrageous fortune to rescue them. The latter was on display in the 88th minute when Nani (who, as it turned out, did not have his leg amputated as a result of Jamie Carragher's reckless challenge a couple of weeks ago) lashed an eminently catchable shot that Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen fumbled right in front of a dawdling Dimitar Berbatov, who had time to roll, light and smoke one of his trademark Gitanes before accepting the tap-in gift for a 1-0 victory.
It was hardly the most beautiful or poetic goal Berba has ever scored, but that's the thing about United and why it's going to lift the EPL trophy. Unlike its North London rival, United is quite comfortable winning ugly.[+] EnlargeScott Heavey/Getty ImagesDavid Luiz has helped invigorate a previously moribund Chelsea team.
Of course, Fergie chose to put it another way in his postgame press conference: "No other club in the country has got that character, that fantastic ability to get something from a dead situation."
Meanwhile, after his game, Wenger droned on about how proud he was of the "spirit" Arsenal displayed in coming back against West Brom. "It shows we are ready for a fight," he said of his team. Are he and I watching the same games? Or is he getting some feed from 2004?
Arsenal may indeed have a fight on its hands, but it will be a fight for second place with Chelsea, which is only four points behind the Gunners after its impressively comfortable 2-0 win over Man City's fading moneybags. David Luiz, the Blues' $35 million Brazilian defender, was once again a revelation, and not simply because his 'do makes him look like the love child of Malcolm Gladwell and Marouane Fellaini. Does anyone suppose that after watching the clownish antics of his own defense, Wenger looks at Luiz's brute strength, aerial power and attacking panache and wonders what could have been in Arsenal's erstwhile four-trophy quest if he had a monster like that at the back? Nah, Luiz is out of Wenger's price range of seven to ten Euros.
Chelsea's other high-priced signing this winter, however, still appears to have misplaced his money-in-the-box boots in his rush to escape the "chaos" of Anfield. El Nino provided a sixth straight game of delivering el nada, though he did graciously hint at his dazzling promise with a couple of surging runs and one audacious backheel flick. When he was subbed off in the 70th -- the fifth time in six games he has been given an early shower by Carlo Ancelotti -- the Stamford Bridge faithful gave him a warm round of applause. Meanwhile, his No. 1 fan, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, shook his head as Torres walked off the field, a gesture that could either be interpreted as disappointment in his prize asset or wonder that the man replacing him was Didier Drogba, easily the most expensive and intimidating super sub in all of soccer.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
The fact that Drogba immediately assisted on Luiz's headed goal with a sharp, well-delivered cross from a free kick must surely have made Torres realize that unless he rediscovers his scoring touch soon, he'll be the prettiest player on Chelsea's bench.
Perhaps Nando will find the upcoming international break restorative, just as Arsenal will hope the bye week will heal injuries to Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas and give Jens Lehmann's 800-year-old body more time to get into shape. When the camera panned to the German keeper on the Arsenal bench after Almunia's latest howler, it was all Lehmann could do not to flash his dentures.
In two weeks, Arsenal and Chelsea will return to Prem action, and they can resume what should be a fierce battle for runner-up to United.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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