By Jonathan Gold
About the only thing Arsenal fans can take away from the awful joke that has been the last 72 hours of English soccer, the Gunners are still just four points behind Manchester United – and with a game in hand, no less.
Without trying to excuse in any way the horror that was this year’s League Cup final, let me point out that it was, in fairness, the League Cup final. It’s cold comfort, of course. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s far and away the least prestigious silverware that top-flight clubs regularly contest.
Manchester United, however, might not have lost in such a hands-over-faces horrifying way, but their loss to Chelsea could very well be a lot more important.
Yes, you can look at the referee, a bit. The penalty that Frank Lampard smashed into the roof of the net in the 80th minute was pretty soft, but hardly the mystifying anomaly that Fergie has pretended. Premier League managers pouting and moaning about the officiating is nothing new – q.v. none other than Arsene Wenger – but for sheer predictability and cynical disrespect, look no further than Sir Alex.
According to the BBC, he had this to say about Martin Atkinson’s performance at Stamford Bridge: “You want a fair referee – or a strong referee, anyway – and we didn’t get that,” said Ferguson. “When I saw who the referee was I did fear it. I feared the worst.”
What a jackass. He’s right on a couple of points – new Chelsea defender and scorer of a really nice equalizer David Luiz probably got away with a couple of nasty fouls, and the penalty really was pretty soft – but Martin Atkinson had nothing to do with United’s complete failure to put Chelsea away when they had the chance.
Wayne Rooney – what the hell do you even say about him anymore? To begin with, he shouldn’t have been playing at all – he should have been suspended for elbowing a Wigan player in the head. It was a cowardly, needless cheap shot from a player who doesn’t exactly have a sparkling record where that’s concerned.
His performance against Chelsea was a great microcosm of his career. He looked confused and ineffectual a lot of the time, at one point rising to head at goal only to hit the ball with his shoulder. But he also scored an excellent opener, drilling the ball low and hard precisely into the bottom corner from distance.
If it wasn’t such a lock-down certainty to happen every time Manchester United lose, Sir Alex’s undignified ref-bashing after full time could be taken as a sign that his team lacks the unshakable confidence that is its hallmark. However, it’s not going to be a lack of confidence that prevents United from winning the title, it’s going to be that they’re just not deep or talented enough to be considered clear favorites anymore.
Don’t get me wrong – they could still easily win the league. Arsenal’s reputation for letting bad losses fester is more or less deserved, and the League Cup loss could rattle the most stalwart team.
Nevertheless, if Arsenal can turn the game in hand into three points, I’ll be hoping for Lord Ferg’s Waterloo at the Emirates on May 1. United are mortal, if not exactly a pushover, away from Old Trafford, and they also have to recover from the Chelsea loss in time to face a Liverpool side sputtering into life at Anfield.
Too many ifs. Given my total lack of ability to pick Arsenal results this season, the North London club could play a half-strength side again in the replay against Orient, lose, fizzle to a 1-1 against Sunderland at the Emirates, and then get smeared all over the pitch at the Camp Nou and lose by about 13. Or they could dominate Orient (LIKE THEY PROBABLY SHOULD), comfortably whip Sunderland, and battle to a score draw and historic victory against Barcelona. How the hell should I know? I’m just a soccer writer.
Jonathan Gold is a contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He may have had a little heart attack after Arsenal’s loss in the League Cup final on Saturday.