Sunday, 12 February 2012

Chelsea's refusal to finish fourth highlights Europa League's pedigree

It's the only assumption I can make given Chelsea's recent inability to play football.

The presence of Manchester City and Manchester United has clearly made the already prestigious tournament a big hit. With giants Club Brugge and Trabzonspor making good progress, who could argue with any teams desire to compete for its illustrious glory? Think of the prize money! The fact is, we could go on forever about the benefits and the greener grass of the Europa League, but I have a blog to not research.

For the last few years, the words "crucial" "fourth" and "spot" have become by-words for diverted success (or sexual deviants), as teams not quite good enough to win the Premier League compete for a place in the coveted, but over-rated (compared to its cousin which only comes out on Thursday nights) Champions League.

Since Manchester City, that hub of footballing tradition and glory became a magnet for the money of Arabic royalty, the competition to merely finish as one of the league's finest quartet has stepped up a notch. The emergence of Tottenham as genuine contenders for a top-four spot has squeezed previous incumbents Arsenal and Liverpool further. But surely Chelsea couldn't fall?

Before this season, Chelsea had finished outside the league's top two positions only once since 2003. The acquisition of the lethal Fernando Torres for a mere £50 million and the arrival of the brilliant and experienced Andre Villas-Boas seemed to promise further competition for Premier and Champions League glory. It has not turned out that way as, contrary to media hyperbole, Torres has not had his best season and Villas-Boas, for all his tactical flexibility and knowledge of the English game, has floundered in a sea of his own ineptitude. It's just been a nightmare.

Nevertheless, at 5:10 last Sunday, Chelsea seemed destined for a five point lead over their nearest challengers for fourth place. By 5:10 six days later, they had conceded five goals without reply and they now sit fifth in the league after a surrender to Manchester United which was as pathetic as Jedward, followed by a display against Everton which was as limp as Dale Winton's wrist.

The teams behind them haven't exactly banged down the door either. Arsenal took up the equivalent of Basra (no-one wants to occupy it) this week after what may prove to be a crucial win at Sunderland. For long periods, in a departure from the clinical, efficient Arsenal we all recognise, despite dominance in possession, they could not create enough chances. However, showing typical mental strength, they pulled themselves from the brink of doom to a vital win as Thierry Henry followed up Aaron Ramsey's equaliser. Ramsey has since been taken into questioning concerning the death of Witney Houston, after earlier-season strikes had brought about the death of Osama Bin Laden and Colonel Gaddafi. Nice work Aaron, but keep to the crazy, ruthless, evil rulers yeah? Who knows who could be next as a result of your frankly selfish actions.

People the world over will pleasure themselves over the goal scored by Henry, and fair play to them, whatever makes them happy. I met Henry's return to Arsenal with much cynicism (me, cynical?! I know!), convinced that the move would prove to be nothing more than a publicity stunt to appease disillusioned Arsenal fans. That said, I may have been wrong (me, wrong?! I know!). Despite his advancing years, Henry possesses something Arsenal players have been able to recreate since his departure: the ability to read a game, the readiness to give his all, the wisdom to inspire others, and the knack of selling a few shirts. Sarcasm aside, he will be sorely missed by all, and for their sake, hopefully they can find a new Henry, not an older one.

Who can stop Arsenal then? In my opinion, Arsenal. The Gunners have an almost tragic ability to produce emo-esque levels of self-harm. Possessing boundless talent, but a dangerous proximity to the self destruct button. Chelsea seem desperate for the Europa League, and although Newcastle are having a great season in sixth, their awful return to Old Newcastle against Tottenham served as reminder that they must walk before they can run (e.g. always passing to Demba Ba gets predictable). And Liverpool? Do I have to? I've already spoken about Liverpool this week and I had a right old dig. My legal team (myself) insist I should say no more about them or the racism issue you may have read about. In all seriousness though, they won't finish fourth, too many god-dam awful players in there. Sue me.

So we return to Chelsea. Although the leagues biggest prize is waaaaaaaaaaay out of reach, there is still enough for them to fight for. With a number of experienced players and undoubted quality still oozing from a number of players (not David Luiz, I don't want to think about what oozes from him), the team may be able to carry themselves forward in spite of their managers constant attempts to derail them. Villas-Boas may well turn out to be a great manager, but regrettably, opposition teams have worked them out and so have the media. If Torres finds form or the middle of his foot, things may change. As for now, it's Arsenal's to lose. Surely they can't throw it away...the fact I have said that means they will.

The Europa League (and Champions League) returns this week, so perhaps the heavyweights of Europe can show our leagues pretenders how to do it. Until then, the race for fourth looks as mysterious as Ramsey's assassination techniques (can I say that?), with its competitors as uncomfortable as Luis Suarez at a Jay-Z gig.

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