November reign


Man City @ 1/5
Arsenal @ 9/2
Newcastle @ 50/1
Liverpool @ 50/1
Spurs @ 66/1
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Arsenal @ 1/16
Liverpool @ 4/5
Man Utd @ 6/5
Spurs @ 5/4
Chelsea @ 7/4

There is a strange, end-of-term feel about this weekend’s Premier League fixtures.  Some teams will be grateful for the imminent, unprecedented World Cup hiatus.  Other teams would rather just carry on playing to see how far their current momentum might take them.

Some of the cool kids are about to head-off on a fancy holiday to significantly warmer climes.  While those left behind will look-on enviously; mumbling to themselves that they wouldn’t want to go and play football inside an over-sized, air-conditioned departure lounge, anyway.

‘They will miss the rehabilitating effects of the cold November rain on their faces over there!’  ‘They will miss the drenched-pitch sliding tackles that never seem to end!’  ‘The muddy, mottled shorts and the ruddy, flecked faces!’

At this time of year football should be played – the left behind will insist in their ‘Far From Qatar’ WhatsApp group (quoting TS Eliot, as is their custom) – ‘under the brown fog of a winter dawn’.  And they won’t be jealous of their colleagues’ once-in-a-lifetime experience one tiny little bit…

But what of the cool kids?  How exactly do they compete in a hugely important round of Premier League matches knowing that even a minor injury could be fatal to their – potentially only – chance of representing their country on the elusive world stage?  Do they dodge collisions and duck headers?

Do they dive out of the way – flop to the ground like a beheaded dandelion – if an opposing player gets within touching distance?  I know most players do that anyway whenever they set foot in the 18-yard box, but will they start to do it in other areas of the pitch this weekend too?

Or will these players just become like normal, everyday workers on the eve of a big holiday and simply put in a really half-hearted, clock-watching shift in exchange for their £250,000 per week?

Premier League outfits will also be comparing their mid-term report cards this weekend.  And they will be shocked to discover that only two teams have been rewarded with an ‘A’ by the governing body for their work this semester.

One ‘A’ is, of course, for Arsenal.  The Gunners are deservedly top of the table heading into this final round of clashes.  They began the term with a trilogy of impressive but expected wins – Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Bournemouth – and closed it out having registered victories over fellow top four antagonists: Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Chelsea.

Mikel Arteta will be hoping the trip to Qatar turns out to be a few days on a pool-side lounger for his players, rather than a gruelling desert trek.  Because Arsenal resume their campaign against West Ham on Boxing Day, and his Christmas wish will be that their end of season memories are of more than just their November reign…

Newcastle and Chelsea are two teams who represent the divide illustrated in my opening paragraph.  Chelsea are without a win in four consecutive Premier League games, and will be thankful of the decisive pause in proceedings; whereas Newcastle can boast four victories on the bounce and will want to see the fog on the Tyne continue to lift.

It is exactly a year since Eddie Howe assumed control of the reins at St. James’ Park and, despite having benefactors with famously deep pockets, Newcastle’s current buoyancy has been achieved without spending truly massive sums – Nottingham Forest, for example, alarmingly, are said to have spent more.

Furthermore, Newcastle’s most expensive signature – Swedish forward Aleksander Isak – has barely played due to injury.  This has been a Howe-To Guide to resurrecting a football team.

The pressure, therefore, is on Chelsea to show signs that they have made the correct managerial appointment as they head to the North East on the eve of the World Cup break.  Graham Potter will be praying that the thoughts of his key players haven’t already turned to sand…

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