Friday, 11 May 2012

'Playing for pride'

Sorry, this is perhaps unfairly lifted from an article I did for Total Football magazine. Yes, I've started to make as much of a splash as a fart in the bath, but it's a start. I have loooots to do, so about 97% of you will be delighted while I take a break for a while, in the meantime, enjoy the below!

We are fast approaching the last weekend of the Premier League season, which means all the clichés are coming out in force: “For all intents and purposes”, “must-win game” and “like a cup final.”
But while the last weeks of the season often equate to "the business end", for others it has long since finished, resigned to a fate of mid-table security as teams either fall well short or far exceed pre-season expectations. For these teams, the final few games usually mean that only pride is at stake.
Games against these sides are said to be the easiest of all, another cliché being that “the teams at the bottom are fighting for their lives” and ought to be avoided. All reasonable logic dictates that a team in twelfth is a more likely cause for concern than a team in eighteenth. But apparently not.
This weekend, Manchester City know that a win against struggling Queens Park Rangers will “for all intents and purposes” seal a first title since 1968. There is just one catch; QPR are “fighting for their lives”. Should City slip up, local rivals Manchester United will win the title with a win against a Sunderland side who have been safe from relegation for weeks. Victory for United is seen by many as a foregone conclusion, simply because Sunderland have “nothing to play for.”
Other teams with different agendas face a similar conundrum. QPR, as mentioned before, know that a draw would suffice against City to ensure survival but have been largely written off due to City’s own objective. As for fellow strugglers Bolton, they face an away trip to Stoke, themselves wedged in a tightly-packed but largely apathetic struggle for mid-table positions.
Stoke at the Britannia – as with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light – is often seen as one of the most daunting away trips for any Premier League side, but the edge has been taken away by the circumstances of both sides.
Is there any evidence for the theory of mid-table sides being the best to play against? Last night, Liverpool trounced a Chelsea side still harbouring a very slight ambition to finish in the top four. Liverpool knew that their season was all but over, but seemed desperate to please their long-suffering home support and duly hammered their visitors.
Who is to say that Stoke and Sunderland don’t turn in their performance of the season, motivated by the desperation of their opponents and the fervent support of their home crowds for the last time in a largely successful (if relatively comfortable) season?
We often hear that “the pressure may just get to them” in reference to sides who need a certain result to fulfil their ambitions. But can’t the sides with “nothing to play for” realise that the pressure is off and play with a care-free abandon, which in many cases can inspire them to new heights?
Take Manchester City as an example, after months of wearily holding off United’s attempts to usurp them at the top of the league this season, they eventually folded under the weight of expectation and fell eight points behind their rivals.
Suddenly shorn of pressure and expectation, City re-discovered the attacking flair which had made them such a potent force earlier in the season. The momentum gathered from this run of form eventually saw them beat (and subsequently overtake) a United side who had stuttered under the pressure which was suddenly handed to them.
Other examples are Arsenal and Fulham. For much of the season, Arsenal were playing catch-up to their rivals Tottenham and – with low expectations – were able to go on a stunning run which reeled in a Tottenham side who suddenly began to panic. Since taking over third place, Arsenal have stuttered themselves and are without a win since beating Wolves, four games ago.
As for Fulham, they have been all but safe since the turn of the year. Suddenly liberated by their freedom, they have shown brilliant form in the last couple of months to rise to ninth in the table.
So you see, nothing in football is a given. Just because you have to win doesn’t make you more likely to. If Bolton and Manchester United expect to simply turn up and achieve their required wins next weekend, they may well get an unpleasant surprise. Pressure, it has been said, can “form diamonds” but also “crack pipes”. Beware the liberated teams, just because their season is “over” doesn’t mean they can’t wreck yours.

No jokes, no funny pictures, just me keeping you occupied for a while! Hope you enjoyed it :)

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