It was, I suppose, slightly disappointing not to beat Manchester United last Sunday. After all, nearly everybody else seems to have been doing so recently.
But put it down to timing. By the time we got round to playing United, they had lost seven of their previous nine games and the smartness, at a pragmatic, business level, of appointing a manager on the basis that he scored a winner for you in a Champions League final 20 years ago was starting to be questioned even by people who hadn’t questioned it originally.
The thing is, though, that slump was never going to go on forever, however much the world seemed to be enjoying it. It was still United, after all. At some point the bottom would be reached, the brakes would be applied and United would manage to scrape a home draw in a desperate ship-righting move. And that, as all the claims of likelihood suggested, was always going to be last weekend.
If you’re looking to capitalise on a catastrophic loss of form by a big club like United, you want to get there slightly earlier in the slump, in my opinion – around the fourth or fifth consecutive defeat. Otherwise the forces of sheer probability are likely to be against you. ‘Reversion to the mean,’ I understand they call it.
Anyway, it was a shame only to draw and not to triumph because right now the effect of acquiring three points in the battle to secure one of the two remaining top-four places would be seismic. Actually, the way things are at the moment, the effect of acquiring even one point is fairly earth-moving.
Consider our position. We have taken two points from our last two league games (last Sunday, and the previous Monday at home to Burnley) and that princely haul has put us in the driving seat for a Champions League spot, which is quite a transformation considering that we seemed to be in the back of the car reading a magazine not all that long ago.
But what an extraordinary end-phase we are witnessing to this fight for league positioning – undoubtedly gripping and exciting in terms of the plot, but also with something of the flavour of a soap opera on Spanish afternoon television, in the sense that everybody is acting very hard but nobody quite seems convincing.
Last week, I breathlessly pointed out in this space that the four clubs going for those two highly coveted places had taken only four points from the 21 most recently available to them, in games in which none of them had played each other. As a register of fairly major underachievement across the board, this seemed significant.
— Giles Smith
But look at it now. Since then, those four clubs (us, United, Arsenal, Spurs) have played for nine more points and the total of the points they have secured has shot like a rocket, all the way from four to… five. Five points out of 30 available! It’s a collective loss of form and purpose which almost matches United’s individual loss of form and purpose.
What’s going on? It’s supposed to be the sharp end of the league, at the sharp end of the season. But Man United look like a dandelion that has been passed in front of a hairdryer. Spurs have gone all… Spursy. And nobody really knows what has happened to Arsenal. They were last seen vanishing into the turf at Leicester, though, in all honesty, there have been few reported sightings of them all spring. It’s a mystery.
Meanwhile, in a relatively cool contrast, our team has cunningly contrived to go unbeaten through this patch, quietly taken its points where they were available and, accordingly, finds itself handsomely placed and with its Champions League destiny firmly in its own hands. Like the poem says, ‘If you can keep your head while all around are losing at home to West Ham…’ And now it’s ours to win or lose (but hopefully not draw), starting with the home game against Watford on Sunday, and finishing away at Leicester the following weekend.
Of course, it won’t have escaped your notice that, in the unassisted jump for Champions League places, we have thoughtfully taken the precaution of packing a spare parachute by staying in pursuit of a place in the Europa League final. If we get our act together in the league, of course, we won’t be needing it. But does that make beating Eintracht Frankfurt tonight and next week and going on to win the Europa League for the second time in our distinguished history seem anything less like a good idea and a noble ambition? Not to my eyes.
Arsenal, no doubt, given their league collapse, will now be eyeing the final with that grubby and slightly shifty ulterior motive in mind. But as we line up tonight in Frankfurt to experience the reliable glamour and grandeur of a European semi-final, safe in the knowledge that a top-four spot in our domestic league is ours to lose, the world can know that we are doing so because we believe in the purity of the contest and the honour of the prize.
People say, ‘If they didn’t offer a Champions League place to the winners of the Europa League, would you be so interested in winning it?’ I refer them to 2013, when they didn’t, and I was, and we did.
That said, there is now, of course, a chance that we could end the season qualifying for the Champions League not once but twice. What an achievement that would be, not least at the end of a term which many regard as having been a touch faltering and underpowered. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a reward for qualifying twice, nor any significant gain, and maybe there should be.
Perhaps teams who qualify for the Champo twice should be granted a special ‘double bubble’ right to veto the entry of another side from their own country. Those other teams would have to present a special case for themselves - perhaps in the form of a video or maybe via some kind of presentation in our boardroom - setting out in compelling terms why we shouldn’t have them dumped off Europe’s top table. You could pull the whole thing together as a TV show. I’d watch. Wouldn’t you?
Anyway, let’s get the groundwork done first.