Two wonderful things and two disappointing but predictable things happened in the Premier League this weekend to make the final two-month stretch of games compelling. Chelsea's 1-0, red-card-filled loss to Aston Villa, combined with Arsenal's 1-0 clampdown of Spurs, placed Arsenal within four points (with a game in hand) of the league leaders -- with an opportunity to shave that margin to a single point at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Of course, Chelsea and Arsenal aren't the only two title-minded teams in the Prem. Manchester City dispatched Hull City 2-0 to keep on its trajectory toward the top (with three games in hand on Chelsea due to various cup competitions and a weekend of really crappy Manchester weather a few months back). Meanwhile, Liverpool shamed Manchester United 3-0 at Old Trafford, not only putting themselves more firmly in the title race, but pouring kerosene all over the "Moyes Out" raging fire, as Red Devil fans come to grips with their upcoming season of watching Thursday night football in Eastern European outposts and pretending to care.
With nine matches left for Arsenal in a season where they've been anywhere from first to 18th -- that Opening Day loss to Villa actually counts in the standings, weirdly -- here's a table breaking down, errr, The Table:
|Team||Points||Goal Diff||Games Remaining||Max Points Possible|
Arsenal fans are no doubt aware of the importance of the next two Saturdays, but just for a quick rundown, here are the four Six-Pointers pitting Top Four opponents against each other the rest of the way:
Arsenal at Chelsea, March 22
Manchester City at Arsenal, March 29
Manchester City at Liverpool, April 13
Chelsea at Liverpool, April 27
There's a considerable gap of nine points between 9th place Newcastle and 10th place Aston Villa (ahead of 11th place West Ham on goal differential, with a game in hand), and all the teams below Villa aren't so far off the drop zone that they can't be ruled out of the relegation scrap. Based on that, and looking at remaining matches against Top Half vs. Bottom Half teams, the schedule skews softer for Chelsea (though you could argue that relegation-threatened teams will be fighting hard, though you could also argue "With what ammo?"). Here's a breakdown of remaining Top Half vs. Bottom Half matches, including the four epic struggles mentioned above, showing that by small yet discernible margins, Arsenal has the toughest strength of schedule the rest of the way.
|Team||Matches vs. Top Half||Matches vs. Bottom Half||Avg. Place of Opponents|
And here's what the final day of matches looks like, if it comes to that:
Chelsea at Cardiff City: A surely-relegated Cardiff will be wearing its hated home reds, while fans wearing old-school blue jerseys will create a wall of blue by standing next to actual Chelsea fans. You'll be able to tell the Chelsea fans because they won't be holding the "Tan Out" signs. There's a one-in-four chance Vincent Tan deploys himself as striker for this match.
Liverpool hosting Newcastle: Assuming Alan Pardew doesn't headbutt anyone else before season's end, Liverpool could have an easier match to contend with on the final day, but they've dispatched better sides with relative ease at Anfield. (Don't we know it.)
Manchester City hosting West Ham: Two years ago, City punked its cross-town rival for the title with a last-gasp comeback against one of the lesser London teams in QPR. West Ham's a better final day opponent than Joey Barton and Co. were two years ago, and Big Sam's tactical acumen is probably greater than Harry Redknapp's, but it's not hard to picture Aguero and Negredo having their way with the Hammers' back line.
Arsenal at Norwich: Though it's an away match, Arsenal looked its most dominant in league play this year pulling apart the Canaries 4-0. And "we won the league at Carrow Road" already fits into an existing Arsenal song about winning the league.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, speaking post-Spurs match, reflected on the title race this way:
"We wanted to get back in the race and the defeat of Chelsea, the win of Liverpool and of Man City away makes the final sprint very interesting. It put us back in a good position. It's not in our hands because even if we win our game in hand we are still a point behind but if we continue to win our games that will of course be very important. Then it is in our hands. Then's it's just focus, recover, focus and try to win the next game."
That good position could get better starting Saturday.