LONDON – If Chelsea beats Arsenal on Saturday, the fat lady can begin gargling.
The Blues would be 12 points ahead of Arsenal with 14 games remaining and there is no evidence that Chelsea is going to falter. In the 24-year history of the Premier League only twice has the sort of lead Chelsea has been blown.
Everything seems to be going well for Antonio Conte’s team. On Tuesday, it drew 1-1 at Liverpool and missed a late penalty, yet rivals’ failures meant Chelsea still extended its lead to nine points.
It can be said with equal confidence that Arsenal will not win the title and the “Wenger Out” brigade was at full volume as the Gunners crashed 2-1 at home to Watford. For Arsenal fans, this type of result and abject performance is rarely a surprise. Arsenal was complacent, casual and perhaps even over-confident against a side that was knocked out of the F.A. Cup by League One Millwall three days earlier.
Wenger’s criticism of his players after the Watford defeat was damning. He said: “Mentally, we were not ready for the (physical) challenges. When you play at home, in our position, that is not normal. Everybody in the Premier League is strong physically and (to give) 90 percent is not enough.”
Things were so different on Sept. 24 when Chelsea visited Emirates Stadium in the sixth match of the season. Arsenal was rampant, winning 3-0 and once again lulling us into a false sense of security.
“Chelsea looked an old and jaded side . . . a stark illustration of the job Conte must do to revive the team,” said one match report.
In fact, Conte started the job during the match. Ten minutes after halftime he brought on Marco Alonso for Cesc Fabregas and switched to a three-man defensive unit with wing backs, which has proved so effective. Since then Chelsea has lost only one Premier League game, a 2-0 defeat by Tottenham, taking 46 points from a possible 51.
Arsenal, on the other hand, seems affected by an incurable football disease combining long-term injuries, a soft underbelly with serial underachieving. While Arsenal is third, the chances of it closing the gap on Chelsea seem remote. Conte found a Plan B, a cure for Chelsea’s early problems, but Arsenal and Wenger appear stuck in the role of nearly men yet again.
More of the same: Jose Mourinho was unhappy with referee Mike Jones after Manchester United’s 0-0 home draw against struggling Hull City on Wednesday. In other surprise news the sun rose in the east.
Mourinho was annoyed that Jones did not clamp down on what he perceived as Hull’s time-wasting tactics. No doubt these remarks would have brought a smile to the face of Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, who was in charge of Celtic when it played FC Porto in the 2003 UEFA Cup final in Seville.
FC Porto won 3-2 and O’Neill made no secret of his disgust at the Portuguese side’s tactics; nor did the 35,000 Celtic fans at the medal presentation.
“I wasn’t pleased with it, I was not pleased at all,” said O’Neill. ‘They are very talented footballers and I am afraid I was not pleased. You saw the reception they (the FC Porto players) got when they collected their medals from our own fans. My own view is that Celtic has as fair-minded fans as there are in European matches.
“I watched it when goalkeeper Vitor Baia goes down and he spent about 12 minutes down there for a sore shin. I thought there was going to be a helicopter coming to take him to the nearest hospital in Seville for that ‘severe’ injury he had. He had at least four doctors looking at him when there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. That time wasting just galled me more than anything else.”
The FC Porto coach was Jose Mourinho.
Hitting out: Former Liverpool defender Phil Thompson has played the game so therefore knows what he is talking about. When Hull City appointed Marco Silva as head coach a month ago he said: “It’s totally astonishing that they have plumped for someone like this. It’s baffling. When there are a lot of people out there who know about the Premier League, about what’s required to dig in. He’s not got a clue.”
Under Silva, Hull has beaten Swansea and Bournemouth in the Premier League and on Wednesday drew 0-0 at Old Trafford against Manchester United, which it also defeated 2-1 in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.
It’s true that someone has not got a clue, but it is not Marco Silva.
Decline continues: When Millwall traveled to Nottingham Forest a few years ago its directors were stunned by the coldness of the reception from their hosts. The Forest board, mainly Kuwaiti, did not indulge in the usual pre-match meeting and greeting of their opposite number. Later that season Forest visited the Den and Millwall decided, by way of retaliation, to include a special dish on the lunch menu — pork.
Any discussion about the worst-run club in English football would have to include Forest, whose owner/chairman Fawaz Al Hasawi cannot sell the club or find a manager.
Nigel Clough, son of former Forest manager Brian, decided to stay with Burton rather than follow in his father’s footsteps and while the club’s fans would have loved to have seen Clough junior take over, many praised his decision to reject the offer as anger against the owner intensified.
Supporters respect Clough so much they do not feel he should be subjected to working with Al Hasawi, a sentiment Clough presumably shared.
There have been eight different managers in the last four seasons which have seen a steady decline at Forest, going from eighth to 11th, to 14th to 16th in the Championship. Now, relegation to League One looms. The one constant in that time has been Al Hasawi, who sacked Philippe Montanier last month.
Al Hasawi is a hands-on micro-manager who employs people and then tells them how to do their job. Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom responded to links with the club by saying: “What would be the point in going there as it is?” Al Hasawi promised that a proper structure — a chief executive, a sporting director and a manager — will be put in place at the former European champion.
There is a meeting of fans who believe this promise in a telephone box next week.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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