Clark on Sport: 2nd March, 2009

 
 

Manchester United stand seven points clear at the top of the Premiership. Has Michael Clark given up hope that they can be caught? Absolutely not, but even he thinks that Arsenal are unlikely to overcome a 17-point deficit

THOSE WHO HAVE already crowned Manchester United as Premiership champions should take a deep breath and stop rushing to judgement. It would of course be churlish to deny that United, who now enjoy a seven-point lead at the top of the table, are heavy favourites to clinch the three-in-a-row. However, it is amazing how pundits and fans often fail to remember events that are only a year old. This time last year, Arsenal stood proudly at the top of the Premiership with a five-point advantage. Don’t worry, Liverpool fans! There’s plenty of time left for the leaders to mess things up.

What’s more, last year United enjoyed a seven point advantage even later in the season and then proceeded to draw with Middlesbrough and Blackburn before losing to Chelsea. I would also argue that Alex Ferguson’s men were far more imperious in the Premiership last year as Ronaldo ran riot and their goal difference reached stratospheric heights. Yes, United have secured 40 points from 42 in their recent run but that sequence of matches has been peppered with scratchy (dare I say, even slightly lucky) one-goal victories.

United’s amazing run of results surely can’t last forever but the chasing pack must at least believe that they have a chance if they to capitalise on any potential United collapse. United must still play Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City and will face tricky away challenges against Newcastle, Wigan and Fulham. The Liverpool side is probably the only realistic contenders though one hesitates to categorically rule out Chelsea, especially since the arrival of the uber-pragmatist Guus Hiddink.

The next few weeks will likely decide Aston Villa’s fate. Are they to become a genuine force in English football or will they be a flash in the pan like Everton in 2005 or Tottenham in 2006? Recent results indicate that the latter outcome may well come to pass. Defeat in the FA Cup at the hands of Everton, followed by a tepid performance against Chelsea in the league finally, and finally, elimination from the UEFA Cup in Moscow last Thursday suggest that Martin O’Neill’s small squad is on the brink of burn-out.

Devout Villa supporters will doubtless argue that their team can now concentrate fully on qualification for next year’s Champions League but I will never be convinced that losing football matches, irrespective of the competition, is the route to future success. Losing soon becomes a habit, even if first-team regulars are rested. I would be sad to see Villa fade away; they seem to have become everybody’s second team and represent a more innocent and less money-conscious past. Martin O’Neill’s infectious enthusiasm is endearing and if there is any justice in the footballing world, they will hold on to fourth place.

Aston Villa will likely hold on in any case; Arsenal seems to have turned the nil-all draw into a dreary art form. After three consecutive stalemates, one would be forgiven for thinking that George Graham, Tony Adams and Steve Bould had returned to the Arsenal ranks. Arsene Wenger’s team seems to think that football matches are won by the team that executes the highest number of ineffectual lateral passes, rather than the team that most often deposits the football into the rectangular net at either end of the pitch. The belated arrival of Andrei Arshavin is welcome but has likely come too late to salvage another disappointing season. One telling sign of Arsenal’s recent decline is that Arsene Wenger is taking the FA cup seriously.

Last week’s Champions League performances by all four Premiership teams underlined the relative improvement of English club football with respect to their European counterparts. A tally of three wins and a draw against Italian and Spanish superpowers is impressive enough but given the general ease with which the results were achieved, one must conclude that another all-English final is a distinct possibility. As I say that, I am still flabbergasted by Bayern’s 0-5 away victory over Sporting Lisbon. Might the German giants be emerging from their years in the European wilderness? One thing’s for sure, no team will relish the prospect of facing the likes of Klose and Toni (or ‘Lucatoni’ as RTÉ commentators insist on calling him.)

Despite the widespread elation, only Liverpool should consider themselves overwhelming favourites to progress to the quarter-finals. Arsenal and Chelsea put in solid workmanlike performances against uninspiring opposition and will both settle for dour nil-all draws in the return legs. While a Real Madrid win at Anfield is by no means inconceivable, Liverpool have no reason to fear a team that trail Barcelona by seven points in La Liga.

On the other hand, Alex Ferguson has every reason to fear an overcoat-wearing José Mourihno in European ties at Old Trafford. I can still remember (joyously in this ABU’s case) Mourihno’s exuberant celebrations as Porto defeated United on the way to Champions League success in 2004. Those were the naïve and innocent days before ‘The Special One’ transformed the English domestic game. Ferguson can rightfully claim dominion over almost every other manager, except the enigmatic Portuguese style icon. I may be guilty of wishful thinking but something tells that Inter could pull off a surprise victory.

United fans are now openly talking of triples, quadruples and quintuples. Ferguson’s men play exciting football, provide great entertainment and deserve their place in football’s pantheon. The sports writer in me respectfully acknowledges their excellence. The sports fan in me, on the other hand, can’t wait to see the smile wiped off Cristiano Ronaldo’s face.

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