FORGET your Premier League, forget La Liga, forget Serie A, forget Ligue Un — the best and most competitive league in world footie is our very own Championship. The Championship is a 46-game marathon where usually by Easter there are genuinely up to 10 teams in the mix for promotion, while the remaining sides are desperately fighting relegation. Additionally it’s a noholds-barred scrap where the niceties that are seen in the Premier League are in short supply.
As of this week, if we ignore poor old Ipswich who are set adrift in bottom place, you can make the case that eight clubs are in with a genuine shout of relegation. They are Sheffield Wednesday, Brentford, Preston, Hull, Rotherham, Reading, Millwall and Bolton, with the gap between Wednesday and Bolton being just five points. At the top Norwich and Leeds have 40 and 39 points respectively and are clear of West Brom and Middlesbrough on 35. However apply the same five-point spread as we did for the bottom half and we get Forest, Sheffield United, Derby, Villa and Birmingham added to the mix. That leaves a mid-table of Blackburn, QPR, Stoke, Swansea, Bristol City and Wigan, who again are covered by a five-point spread.
By any definition this is one competitive league with so many permutations as to success, midtable languor and failure that its unpredictability is without parallel. At the start of the season you would have got good odds on Stoke and West Brom for automatic promotion, and reasonable odds on Middlesbrough, Leeds, Sheffield’s United and Wednesday, Derby and Forest for the play-offs.
You would have got long odds on Norwich and yet there they are sitting on top, five points clear of third place. Almost unnoticed, Daniel Farke has done a wonderful job at Carrow Road and on limited resources has assembled a squad that has looked good value for their lofty league position. Hopefully they can stay there, though better-resourced clubs will still fancy their chances of overhauling them.
Not too surprising
During last season Arsene Wenger went out and spent £111 million on two established international strikers; this summer Wenger’s replacement Unai Emery spent £26 million on an established international midfielder.
On Saturday the three players combined for all four Arsenal goals against Spurs, making nonsense of the old adage that in footie money doesn’t always buy you success — it clearly does if spent wisely. Jose Mourinho, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and a few others in the Premier League should take note.
Old Trafford horror show
On the face of it a 2-2 draw between United and Arsenal is a respectable result between two big clubs. Arsenal enjoyed their 20th game without defeat and Jose Mourinho earned a tiny bit of respite from a so-far-troubled season. In reality what the punters witnessed was a master class from both sides in comical defending. I’m struggling to think of another game between two of the big boys where both defences were so utterly inept that the Maginot Line probably put up a better showing. I would compare it to Sunday league football but that would be a massive insult to all those past and present who turned out on a Sunday while nursing a massive hangover.
Stats of the week
Goals conceded by United in the whole of last season (38 games): 28. Goals conceded by United so far this season (15 games): 25. Only five teams have conceded more this term and they are the current bottom five.
Team of the week
Sergio Rico, Fulham; Yeri Mena, Everton; Saeed Kolasinic, Arsenal; Patrick van Aanholt, Palace; Solly March, Brighton; Lucas Torreira, Arsenal; James Maddison, Leicester; Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal; Hernandez, West Ham; Pierre EmerickAubameyang, Arsenal; Andros Townsend, Palace. Manager: Unai Emery, Arsenal.
Emery gets manager of the week because of his half-time substitutions against Spurs that totally changed the game in Arsenal’s favour. Would Arsene Wenger have been so proactive? Then again would Wenger be prepared to jettison Aaron Ramsey at the end of this season?
The Welshman may be inconsistent but he was the catalyst for Arsenal’s second-half comeback and I would suggest that he is better value for the Gooners than £350 grand-a-week Mesut Özil, who clearly isn’t fancied by the Arsenal boss for the big games. Think on that: a German World Cup winner considered not good enough or feisty enough for big Premier League games. That doesn’t or shouldn’t compute. Clearly someone at Arsenal dropped the ball when breaking the bank on his new contract in February when no team was interested in taking him as he touted himself around Europe.
This week’s games
Premier League — today: 2.30pm Bournemouth v Liverpool; 5pm Arsenal v Huddersfield, Burnley v Brighton, Cardiff v Southampton, United v Fulham, West Ham v Palace; 7.30pm Chelsea v Citeh; 9.45pm Leicester v Spurs. Tomorrow: 6pm Newcastle v Wolves. Monday: 10pm Everton v Watford.
Champions League — Tuesday: 10pm Barcelona v Spurs, Liverpool v Napoli. Wednesday: 10pm Citeh v Hoffenheim, Valencia v United. Europa League — Thursday: 7.55pm MOL Vidi v Chelsea, Rapid Vienna v Rangers; 10pm Arsenal v FK Qarabag, Celtic v Red Bull Salzburg.
Last week I asked what was memorable about Celtic’s Ronnie Simpson’s Scottish international debut. It was, of course, the game at Wembley in 1967 that saw Scotland defeat England 3-2. In so doing they became the first team to beat England since the 1966 World Cup and afterwards many disillusioned Scots proclaimed their country as the de facto world champions. One month later the Jocks lost to Russia who, as far as I am aware, did not take on the mantle of de facto world champions.
This week: on Sunday Arsenal’s Pierre EmerickAubameyang became the first player in 11 years to score from 10 consecutive shots on target. Who was the last player to do so?
Idiot of the week: the Greek Cypriot Spurs fan who threw a banana skin on to the Emirates pitch after an Arsenal goal scored by a — are we allowed to say? — non-white player. It may well be the case that his protestation that “I am not racist whatsoever” is true, but if he’s not racist then he’s a remarkably stupid man who had to have been aware of the connotations of his actions. That said, I am a bit perturbed by the possible consequences now that Plod have got involved; for me, it should have been left to Tottenham to sanction him with a stadium ban.
Meanwhile in midweek a Brighton fan was arrested and faces a criminal conviction for throwing a pie at Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, so that tots up to two men facing criminal proceedings after lobbing a banana skin and pie respectively, while on Merseyside there were no arrests after coins were thrown on the pitch at Anfield as Liverpool took on Everton. Ask yourself this: would you rather be whacked by a banana skin, a Greggs special or a heavy metal disc?