One of my favourite cartoons growing up was Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races. For those of you too young to remember, it portrayed the antics of a disparate group of zany characters – including the likes of glamorous Penelope Pitstop, evil Dick Dastardly, and crazy inventor Professor Pat Pending (oh wait, I just got that!) – as they competed in a succession of vehicle races across America.
Although the ultimate prize for winning these races was never made clear, it has been calculated that The Slag Brothers – who, despite their name, were not lotharios (they were actually cavemen who drove a Boulder Mobile) – accumulated the most points over the course of the show’s 34 episodes.
In recent weeks the series has been returning to my thoughts as I ponder who will ultimately win the increasingly wacky race for the remaining Premier League top four slot – a defining characteristic of which has been a cartoonish inability to capitalise on good fortune.
Saturday’s early game sees Manchester United face Arsenal at the Emirates in what could be a pivotal fixture in this protracted, unpredictable contest.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable stories of the season is how a team that has been so frequently awful could still be in contention for a respectable finish? Manchester United, of late, being more Lethargic & Lugubrious than Fast & Furious. Could this encounter see Arsenal take it upon themselves to nudge the spluttering gold-plated jalopy into the gravel once and for all?
Based on their showing at Anfield on Tuesday night, it would appear that some United players haven’t so much as ‘checked-out’ on the current season; they’ve passed through customs, touched down in Ibiza, quickly donned their Speedos, and are currently sprinting towards the sea with a pint of Negroni sloshing in their hand.
It has been a remarkable implosion at Old Trafford – a team that finished a position and five points above Liverpool last season, now find themselves 20,000 leagues beneath them. Never mind the impending arrival of ten Hag, they need ten points. Immediately.
But can Arsenal be relied upon to pull the trigger? A run of three inauspicious defeats sharply put the brakes on their top four quest, before they somehow found the accelerator again on Wednesday night against Chelsea, and at their traditional graveyard of Stamford Bridge too.
Despite their resurgence – and the impressive style of play engendered under Arteta – doubts will continue to ferment around the subject of their mental fortitude. With crucial derbies against West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur looming ominously on the horizon, this subject looks set to receive the sternest interrogation possible very soon.
Currently with a manicured toe inside the top four, the latter London club travel across town to face Brentford in Saturday’s late game. Following a surprising defeat at home to Brighton last weekend, Spurs will also be hoping to dispel the faint whiff of fragility from their nostrils…and to find a Brentford side who have also, perhaps, ‘checked-out’ following their successful debut Premier League campaign.
But with the inspirational Christian Eriksen once more orchestrating attacking proceedings, his former club may end up sorely disappointed.
I have a robust feeling there may be many more unexpected twists and turns to come in the race for the final top four spot, despite the number of remaining games. And is there just one remaining spot? Could Chelsea, conceivably, now be prone to a late collapse? Could West Ham still have a decisive role to play?
And the most fundamental question of all: who, in the end, will win this wackiest of races? Who will get to experience the elation, to bask in the profound glory, to know what it feels like…to rub shoulders with The Slag Brothers on that gilded victory podium?
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