Monday, 13 December 2010
The most spectacular implosion was Aston Villa in 1998/99 who, under the tutelage of John Gregory, contrived to do what has since become known as ‘a Villa’ and burn out marvellously after the new year, finishing the season in sixth. In a woeful run between the end of January and early April, Villa’s record was played 9, won 0, drawn 2, lost 7.
Post 1992/3 then, here are a list of the ‘bottlers’ in chronological order: 1992/93 Norwich, top at Christmas, but finished 3rd, Newcastle 1995/96 (2nd), 1996/97 Liverpool (4th), 1998/99 Aston Villa (6th), 1999/00 Leeds (3rd), 2001/02 Newcastle (4th), 2002/03 Arsenal (2nd), 2007/08 Arsenal (3rd) and 2008/09 Liverpool (2nd). To fill in the gaps, Manchester United have been top five times at Christmas post 1992/93 and have gone on to win the league on three of those occasions, while Chelsea have topped the league twice and gone on to win it both times.
The importance of title-challenging sides gaining momentum at the business end of the season is therefore clear. It's no good going into Christmas a glorious shiny apple if all you're going to do is finish the year as a foul-smelling mouldy onion. Sir Alex Ferguson may have spoken about “squeaky bums” in the past, but he has proved that his makes far less of a racket than, say, the Mike Walkers of this world (Norwich topped the Premier League table by eight points in early December during the 1992/93 season). And Arsene Wenger may need to get some professional advice in terms of rear acoustics when you consider that his side have twice thrown away Christmas leads in recent seasons.
All of which of course sets us up very nicely for tonight’s clash at Old Trafford, where pre-match Wenger has talked up his side’s chances of lifting their first title since 2004: "Against Partizan we were not at our best, but we still managed to win the game [3-1 last Wednesday in the Champions League]. That is a sign of maturing as a team. It's a big game for us [against United] because we know that we have to convince people that we can do well in the big games and we know as well that looking at the championship it's an important place to make points.”
Wenger knows that his well of excuses is finally beginning to run dry and it is in games like tonight’s where leaders will need to emerge if he is to get an invaluable three points. Just one point separates first from fourth at present and although Wenger is insistent his charges now have the character missing from previous title run-ins in the not-too-distant past, results against those at the top this season have been far from encouraging: a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea and the 3-2 home defeat to Spurs last month.
In a league where margins are fine, mind games become an obvious yet deadly weapon in a manager’s armoury. If you can get a rival gibbering on about ‘dossiers’ in broken English then you are definitely on the right track. Famously, Kevin Keegan, also in broken English, spontaneously combusted under the sheer weight of pressure strategically placed on his shoulders by Sir Alex (I love this video, LOVE IT.) And while you’re at it, don’t talk to Tim Flowers about bottle…
For the time being, sadly, mind games have been few and far between. Wenger and Sir Alex actually seem to like each other these days and Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini have not been known in their time in England for getting their retaliation in first. However, with so many top of the table clashes coming up in the weeks to come, don’t yet discount a Benitez-style show of hubris as was displayed back in yuletide 2008/09, when he declared that his side had an “80% possibility” of winning the league if top at Christmas. Of course they didn't, and while he would have hoped to have been proved vindicated by his team following the examples set by United and Chelsea, it ultimately served to prove only that he was 100% full of shit.