Today sees a pivotal day in the racing calendar – the 2013 John Smith’s Grand National. However I am not here to talk about horse racing, there are far more interesting and pulse-raising races on this weekend other than the national betting (horse racing) day.
The race to finish in the top four of the Premier League is twisting and turning at every fence, and as the runners come into the final furlong, nobody can say confidently who will come out on top. Just four points separate Tottenham in 3rd from London rivals Arsenal in 5th, with a Chelsea club sandwich in between. Everton lie in 6th, quietly but effectively coming back to the pack, just four points off The Blues in 4th and waiting to make their move for the line.
So, who will win this particular race? Well we will start where any good punter looks to back a horse – by looking at the form guide. Arsenal look strong here, lying second in the form table over the last six matches only to league leaders Manchester United. Arsenal have won five out of their last six games, the only slip up coming against Spurs who are 4th in the form table, who have emerged victorious a slightly less impressive four out of their last six. Spurs’ fixtures look okay on paper – their next three games are the most difficult imaginable against Everton, Chelsea and City, but their last four are against relegation strugglers Sunderland, Southampton, Wigan and Stoke, so although “there are no easy games,” (Roy Hodgson before San Marino), Spurs will be pleased with their chances in the last four games if they can keep points ticking over in their next three. However they are without Jermain Defoe, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon for at least their match against Everton on Sunday, and if those three were to be out for an extended period of time (particularly key man Bale), you fear for Spur’s top four aspirations, although again their injured players should be back (except possibly Bale) for the games in May. Spurs have an unfortunate, and probably unwarranted tag of ‘chokers’ – will they fall at the final fence once again?
Everton manager David Moyes has just won the manager of the month for March, with his side winning all three league matches last month and so quietly Everton are pegging the other three back, though you feel they must avoid defeat at White Hart Lane to have a chance of winning the key race. Their remaining fixtures are hit (QPR, Sunderland, Fulham and West Ham) and miss (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs on Sunday), but are still in the hunt. A miraculous return to form for Nikica Jelavic, or continued goals from Kevin Mirallas are key for Everton’s chances, who have struggled for goals since Marouane Fellaini declared his interest in joining “a big club” a couple of months back.
Meanwhile Chelsea’s form doesn’t make for such promising reading – they are struggling for form at the most crucial stage of the season, winning their last three home matches but losing their last three away days. Chelsea have an even number of home and away games left in the season – but their away days include tricky trips up north to Manchester United and Liverpool, a London derby against Fulham, and a trip to Aston Villa who will be scrapping for their lives in the penultimate fixture of the season. Throw in Europa League games (Chelsea should see off Kazan next week to progress to at least the semi-finals) and the FA Cup semi-final against City next Sunday, and Chelsea’s fixture list looks uninspiring – a bit like their form. They do possess the holy trinity of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar though, and other winners like Frank Lampard, Demba Ba and Fernando Torres (only joking) who are capable of leading them to a coveted Champions League spot.
And finally Arsenal! The club falling apart, a shambles, Wenger’s reign coming to an end etc etc a month ago suddenly all seems a bit drastic. Maybe we do trust in Arsene again? Maybe this is all part of the trophy less plan? As mentioned before Arsenal are flying in terms of form, their strikers aren’t exactly banging in the goals either so a timely return to form for Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott (anonymous since earning 100k a week, no surprises there). Santi Cazorla is in electrifying form, and Jack Wilshere may return before the challengers cross the line. Since Wenger took a tough line stance in dropping keeper Wojciech Szczesny and Thomas Vermaelen, the error count is low defensively with Lukas Fabianski impressing, and things seem to be coming together for the Gunners. Arsenal’s fixture list is by far the easiest of the challengers, their only huge problems in games at home against Everton and probable already-crowned champions Manchester United.
So with punters desperately reaching out for tips today and everyone pretending to be a horse racing expert, he is me pretending to be a football expert. Put your money on Arsenal making it, then a tossup between Chelsea and Spurs – I reckon Chelsea’s know-how and insatiable appetite to do what it takes to win things come what May will see injury-plagued Spurs miss out, with Everton not far behind.