On Saturday morning, with some bookmakers, you could get odds as low as 8/11 on Arsenal regaining the Premier League title. And with their lead over Manchester United standing at five points with just twelve league games to play, some people may have argued those odds as fair.
Yet flick through the sports pages and websites today, and you won’t have to look far to find someone who is convinced that yesterday’s 2-2 draw away to 10-man Birmingham (coupled with United’s emphatic 5-1 demolition of Newcastle), proves that in fact Arsenal should not be regarded as favourites for this title. Have the bookmakers, not for the first time, got it all wrong? Or are the doom and gloom merchants gathering around the Emirates guilty off the typical sports writers’ error- over-reaction.
Firstly, the facts. Yesterday, Manchester Utd reduced Arsenal’s lead at the top to three points with a swashbuckling victory away to Kevin Keegan’s hapless Newcastle. It was a lesson in devastating counter-attacking, and ruthless efficiency in front of goal and came just hours after a last minute James McFadden penalty had denied Arsenal a win over a Birmingham side that played the best part of 90 minutes with ten men, after Martin Taylor was dismissed for an ugly looking challenge that left the Gunners’ Croatian striker Eduardo Da Silva with a sickeningly broken leg.
Despite the disruption caused by the injury, it was certainly two points dropped by Wenger’s men, and the manner in which United callously swotted aside Newcastle in front of their own fans suggests that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men knew it too, and hammered home the advantage in typical fashion.
But that isn’t why the cynics are queuing up to hand the initiative back to the defending Champions in the race for the title. Well, not entirely anyway. Yes, United are now just a victory away from regaining top spot (thanks to their slightly superior goal difference), but there is a genuine belief that the draw at Birmingham may not only have come at a cost to Arsenal, but also exposed the mental frailties within Wenger’s young side.
For a start, Eduardo will miss the rest of the season (and probably much more). His injury was horrific; the photographs in today’s media will be remembered for a long long time by anyone who saw them. It is always saddening to see a player pick up such an injury, and one can only hope that the talented Croatian is able to resume his career at the top level in due time. For Arsenal however, the repercussions of such an injury are hard to overestimate. With Robin Van Persie, and now Eduardo, sidelined through injury.
It leaves Emmanuel Adebayor as the only senior striker in the team, with youngsters Nicklas Bendtner & Theo Walcott able to offer support in a bit-part role. An injury or suspension to Adebayor would leave Wenger with a massive problem in attack, as would any loss of form for the Togolese frontman. With Kolo Tourè (calf), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) & Emmanuel Ebouè (suspension) also set to miss at least the next couple of league games- against Aston Villa at home, and Wigan away- it could be a crucial fortnight for Wenger’s depleted squad as the pressure mounts.
And the pressure certainly appeared to have gotten to William Gallas, yesterday. As McFadden prepared to take a 94th minute penalty against his side at St Andrews yesterday, was the Arsenal captain poised on the edge of the penalty area, ready to pounce on any rebound? Was he verbally planting seeds of doubt in the mind of the taker or consoling the visibly rattled Gael Clichy, whose inexplicable misjudgement of a loose ball led to him conceding the penalty?
No. Gallas instead chose to stand alone in the Birmingham half, some sixty yards away from the action, wearing the expression of a child who had been denied a second helping of ice cream. And when McFadden dispatched the penalty powerfully past Manuel Almunia into the Arsenal net, did their skipper attempt to rally his troops? Did he grab the ball from the net and prepare for the restart?
No. Gallas instead chose to petulantly kick the advertising boards in frustration, having to be restrained by the fourth official in the process, before spending the next minute berating someone- Clichy? The referee? Wenger? – in an unbelievable show of immaturity.
Indeed, when the final whistle blew almost immediately after the restart, Gallas opted to spend several minutes slumped dejected on the St Andrews turf, before being ushered off the field by his manager. No claps for the away fans who had been particularly vocal in their support, no show of strength in adversity from the captain, no encouragement for his team-mates, who had been forced to witness one of the most horrific injuries ever witnessed in the Premier League, just sulking and self-pity from a man who really should know better.
What must Sir Alex Ferguson and his side have made of Gallas’ antics? I know what I thought. I thought it smacked of someone who was cracking under pressure, and who believed that yesterday’s dropped points would come back to haunt his side come the end of the season. It is hard to imagine Wayne Rooney, or Paul Scholes, or Rio Ferdinand, slumped on the turf at St James’ Park had yesterdays roles been reversed.
Gallas is the most experienced (regular) outfield player in the Arsenal side, and the only player (Clichy, who played a bit part role in the 2004 title winning side, aside) with a Premier League winners’ medal. He really should be setting an example to his younger team-mates who haven’t experienced a genuine title race yet- the likes of Walcott, Bendtner, Fabregas & Flamini- yet who showed far less sign of feeling the pressure yesterday. Wenger said after the game that Gallas’ actions showed that he was a winner. He was wrong. They showed that he is a bad loser (or draw-er?).
On the positive side, they still created chances almost at will (perhaps to be expected against a ten man side battling relegation), and had Adebayor been his best and Maik Taylor not, the game would have been long over by the time Clichy’s mind went AWOL, Theo Walcott finally added an end product from the wing as he picked up his first (and second) Premier League goals, and with Eduardo & Van Persie absent, he might well have a crucial part to play between now and the end of the season.
And it appears to have been lost in the furore of the weekend that Arsenal ARE still top of the Premier League, despite yesterday’s result. And that it only took a highly debatable last gasp penalty decision to stop them from maintaining a five point lead. Clichy’s challenge on Stuart Parnaby was a desperate one, as the Frenchman looked to make up for his failure to deal with a loose ball in the box, but replays suggest he played the ball.
On another day they would have got away with it, and perhaps their odds would have shortened as the number of games remaining did. As it is, they didn’t. And it will be interesting to see whether Gallas can get all his toys back in his pram in time to lead his side to the title.