There is nothing worse than a rude awakening. There I was, quietly browsing the morning papers with both tabloids and broadsheets declaring that despite the pervading sense of doom and gloom they had hysterically constructed — sorry, reported upon in a sensible and unbiased manner, the clouds had finally lifted and the sun was once again shining upon our beautiful game; after forty league games the Evil Empire had finally been defeated. Just as I was getting used to the idea, the phone rang. Who is calling at this time, I asked myself? Double glazing salesman? The bank? Some other irritant telling me that I am paying too much for my house and contents insurance?
“It’s 10.30 — why the f*ck aren’t you in the office?”
During the conversation that followed I established that I should actually be toiling away in a poorly heated fourth floor shoebox in Soho rather than enjoying a medicinal plate of scrambled eggs and a pot of coffee at a leisurely pace in the suburbs. The national holiday that Jose predicted after a Chelsea defeat in the league had apparently not materialised. Don’t these people understand that I need a day to take stock of the current crisis?
After all, this is a crisis isn’t it? Wigan at the Bridge next month is looking like a must-win six pointer now; Arsenal and United both finding their feet after a poor start, our vice-like grip on the League Cup gone and only two games left to save our Champions League campaign. I’d imagine Roman is calling Bill Gates and other assorted billionaires to offer his failing football club at a knockdown price as we all lie panicking in our beds. Back in “Man of the People” mode, Tony Blair shuffled uncomfortably on Football Focus last Saturday tipping Steed Malbranque as an unsung hero and a win for United over the Blues on Sunday; two goals for the former against Manchester City that afternoon and a wholly correct prediction for the latter surely being the only two decent calls he has made in recent months. Things must be bad.
But if yesterday’s result proved that the Prime Minister does occasionally get something right, it is clearly doing very little for the sanity of the nation at large; such heady days clearly aren’t good for Joe Public. Marbles are lost and memories have become shorter than Roy Keane’s temper. At the final whistle yesterday Old Trafford erupted, ordered trebles all round and partied like it was 1999; Sir Alex swore at some journalists and retired to his office to tweak the beaks of the attendant vultures and push the black bin liner to the back of his desk drawer for another month or two. Away from Manchester, a clearly jubilant Arsenal fan called the 606 phone-in to gloat that his team were now just eleven points adrift of the Premiership summit and, more hilariously, that Jose “doesn’t know how to lose with dignity”. The Special One may have his faults but whilst the dry cleaners removed the pizza and soup stains from the United manager’s clothes some time ago, the rest of us have far longer memories when it comes to Arsenal’s shining example of dignity in defeat. The nation’s football fans are clearly enjoying the vicarious thrills provided by a Chelsea blip.
All things considered this isn’t a pleasant feeling but I’m sure I’ll learn to cope; losing a game or two when you’re on top of the heap is infinitely preferable to losing when you’re scrapping it out for mid-table respectability or worse still, survival. An occasional dose of reality is a good thing; losing a year-long unbeaten run is painful but it may be a blessing in disguise that it went before media and fans alike started getting over-excited about the possibility of surpassing Arsenal’s forty-nine game unbeaten record — one historical statistic that most of us are perfectly happy for Wenger’s team to hang on to for the time being given the hype that preceded it and the bad karma that followed.
As for the game itself, our penchant for a lethargic opening forty-five minutes building gradually to a second half crescendo has finally proved to be rather costly as many predicted it would; the ability to come back from a one goal deficit that we have made our trademark deserted us. I’m not overly keen on Jose’s standard insistence that we were the best team on the pitch after a draw or a defeat, but we played well and engineered enough opportunities, especially in the second half to suggest that he may have spoken the truth yesterday. The Gallas / Terry partnership that the game demanded looked dependably solid; Eidur’s introduction early in the second half saw us turn the game and create chances that a more confident side would have converted. Even the most biased observer would have been painfully aware that Ferguson’s team breathed a deep sigh of relief when the ninety-fourth minute passed; on another day the result may have been dramatically different.
In truth, this was a more hard-fought victory for United than the one which saw a surfeit of “50 Not Out” t-shirts circulating the bargain bins around Highbury this time last year; it should be remembered that the vanquishing of Wenger’s Invincibles was little more than a small victory on the way to a disappointing trophy-free season and it is certain that United will be beaten by far worse teams than Chelsea before the Fat Lady reaches the microphone in six months’ time. Anyone that believes the paper-thin squad Roy Keane dubbed underachieving and substandard less than a week ago after meek surrenders to Boro and Lille can produce similar displays week in, week out until next May does so far more in hope than expectation. Alan Smith may have been Keane’s heir apparent yesterday (he’s certainly got the kicking people part of it sussed); next time he could well be Djemba-Djemba’s less competent cousin. The often erratic Ronaldo looked excellent but there will be plenty of games in which he will resemble a drunken Riverdancer trying to step out of his boxer shorts; Ferdinand will once again gaze cluelessly at the assistant referee and super-hero-goal-king Darren Fletcher will return to being, well, Darren Fletcher. The belief may have been restored which could certainly provide Ferguson’s men with a springboard onto better things, but the shortcomings of the team have not disappeared overnight after one good result. As for the other competitors, whilst North London may be deliriously happy today rest assured that Mr. Wenger will have his steamy-lensed telescope firmly trained upon SW6 willing further slip-ups; Paul Jewell is far too busy concentrating his efforts on an eight game run that sees his excellent Wigan side take on virtually the top half of the table including Chelsea before Rudolph arrives to out red-nose Sir Alex.
Granted, we need to wake up and take note that everyone now treats their fixtures against Chelsea as the biggest games of the season; United’s players and fans made yesterday’s game a cup final which is both flattering and an indication of how much times have changed. Lampard will have to cope with man-markers getting closer to him than his partner or a tattoo ever could, our wingers need to find form and Jose will have to devise ways of unlocking stubborn teams that don’t fall easily into our game plan but all will do so, of that we can be certain. The talent and the consistency is there and I don’t doubt for one moment that our air of invincibility will return as quickly as it has disappeared.
So to recap on the current crisis that we face; one league defeat in twelve. Six points clear of second place. A double figure points gap between us and our most realistic title challengers. Retaining the title was always going to be infinitely tougher than winning it, so the situation that we find ourselves in at this stage suits me just fine. It is now tedious international friendly time so roll on November 19th and the visit of Newcastle but until then, remember that Sven says don’t boo Peter Crouch. Leave that to the Liverpool fans.