Admit it, you’re bored with the prospect of the sports scene on the horizon. There is only one football game left, so your gridiron fix is wasting away. You’re not interested in the Hawks after they fully and irreversibly committed to a flawed core in the summer and you’re nauseated by the idea of picking between cyanide (the Celtics) and throwing yourself in a wood chipper (the Heat). You’re vaguely aware of the existence of the NHL, but you’re underwhelmed about the idea of following an 82-game regular season where the teams are playing for seeding that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when the playoffs start. College basketball? Everybody knows this is nowhere. Try as you might, you can’t be excited about professional athletes taking a month of fake games to get into shape for the start of baseball season. You need a sports fix and yer trouble is you know it too good. You want to watch meaningful games played by athletes who are the best in the world at their sport? Called by announcers who aren’t Joe Theismann or Matt Millen? In front of intense, heaving crowds that rise and fall on every change in the action?
Look, you know where I’m going with this. Let’s cut the pretense. Here is the first of five storylines to follow from the world of European soccer over the last four months of the season:
The English Civil War
In the English Premier League, Manchester United is two points ahead of Arsenal with one game in hand and three points ahead of cross-town rivals Manchester City with two games in hand. Chelsea, the defending champion, is seven points back and has played one more game than United, although the Blues do have two head-to-head meetings with the Red Devils still remaining and Chelsea has pulled itself out of its funk in recent matches. The strange aspect of this year’s race in the EPL is that none of the major teams look that good, which is a change from a few years ago when the Big Four in England were dominating Europe.
United is an odd team this year. Most observers agree that, on paper, this is one of the weakest United teams in recent memory. Wayne Rooney isn’t scoring goals, the midfield is merely functional, and the back line was a question until Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand both got healthy. Although they aren’t exactly reminding the world of Arsenal's Invincibles, United are unbeaten and are in pole position to win another title. Sir Alex Ferguson is getting goals by the bushel from the formerly wayward Dimitar Berbatov and the defense is close to airtight.
Manchester City is a poorly constructed plaything of insanely wealthy benefactors. City has an expensive collection of attackers and defensive midfielders with precious little linking the two on the pitch. (Think of a football team with a great offensive line and terrific receivers, but no quarterback.) The work of gluing the team together has fallen to Carlos Tevez, who put in a transfer request earlier this season and then withdrew it. As could be expected for a collection of mercenaries (even by professional footballer standards) where the defense and offense don’t mesh, there has been blood. City also have a manager who has brought some old school Italian conservatism to England, producing some truly soporific performances. (Arsenal-City a couple weeks ago was positively unwatchable. In their defense, their cross-town rivals have also produced some stinkers. Spurs-United was dreadful; United-Arsenal was barely better.) Naturally, with all of these problems, City are in contention for the title for the first time in ages and are in good position to make the Champions League for the first time ever. How? It’s the Jimmies and the Joes, Exhibit 53. If you have billions in oil money to splash around, you’ll end up with good players.
Sitting behind the two is Arsenal, the most popular club in England and also a side that hasn’t won a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup. In contrast to City, the Gunners are constructed primarily by buying players young and then developing them. Whereas City are a hodge-podge of different concepts (their transfer policy is perfectly encapsulated by Hugo Drax’s line in Moonraker when he is looking for a new evil henchman: “oh, well if he’s available…”), Arsenal bear the stamp of Arsene Wenger in all respects. Wenger controls everything about the club, from the way the youth teams play to the blend of grass at the Emirates. The problem for the gifted, but stubborn Wenger is that his Arsenal are perpetually next year’s team, full of talented young players and therefore able to stay in the top four, but never able to win the league because Wenger won’t spend his millions on the one or two veterans that will push the team over the top.* This year, weakness from United and Chelsea (although United’s weakness hasn’t shown up in the form of actually losing games) has opened the door. Samir Nasri has parlayed his summer snub by the truly inept Raymond Domenech into becoming one of the best attacking midfielders around. With a front four of Robin Van Persie, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, and Nasri, Arsenal look like a real contender. Their issue is the defense. An injury to Thomas Vermalen has left Wenger with a host of unpalatable options for central defenders. Moreover, Arsenal fans live in a perpetual world of waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of one of their green goalies dropping a ball at a crucial juncture.
* – Contrast Arsenal and Barcelona. Barca’s first XI has eight products of La Masia. To fill in the gaps that the youth system has left – striker and the two fullback spots – Barca has spent on the best right back in the world (Dani Alves), a solid complement at left back (Eric Abidal), and one of the best strikers in the world and a guaranteed good fit with the Barca midfield (David Villa). Arsenal, on the other hand, has needed a goalkeeper and better central defenders for ages, but Wenger hasn’t bought a keeper and his efforts at buying central defenders haven’t been as thorough as needed. On the other hand, Wenger has avoided saddling his club with Barca's balance sheet-killing wage bill, so there is merit to his approach.
The American Equivalent – Think of the EPL like the NBA’s Eastern Conference:
United = the Celtics: a proud team full of clever veterans who have dominated the league in the last several years and won’t give up their title without a tussle. (I had Ryan Giggs and Shaquille O’Neal t-shirts in 1995. They’re both old.)
City = the Heat: a collection of talented players thrown together for the entertainment of the masses. This analogy would work a little better if City had signed Messi for 200M Euros. Also, City has too much depth, whereas the Heat don’t have enough.
Arsenal = the Bulls: an exciting, young team that plays an attractive style, but one wonders how they’ll do when subjected to veteran dirty trick in crunch games down the stretch.
Chelsea = the Magic: a talented team that depends on one very large man in the middle (Didier Drogba = Dwight Howard) and that is trying to survive a midseason slump. Problem with the analogy: Chelsea have the urbane Carlo Ancelotti managing their side and no one will ever use that adjective to describe Stan Van Gundy.
Sunderland = the Hawks: who? Exactly.