I may not have grown up in North London with a multi-generational love for Arsenal being an integral part of the legacy passed on to me by my family. Despite this accident of geography and the fact that I write primarily about fantasy games as opposed to the real action on the field, my first criterion for evaluating a Premier League season is how Arsenal did. Yes, my second is definitely how my fantasy team did with third being how it did in comparison to Jeremy's fantasy team and fourth being any tangible signs of progress on the blog - more traffic, more comments, better contributions from readers, etc.
Back to my first criterion though as this was a pretty enormous weekend for Arsenal in their pursuit of a Champions League spot for next season. With a win against QPR and one or both of Spurs or Chelsea dropping points, the path would get much clearer to fourth or maybe even third. Heading into the weekend I didn't expect that Spurs would drop points to a Southampton team that, after a few high profile results to secure their place in the Prem for next season, seem to have shut it down.
I did, however, have high hopes for Chelsea dropping points on their trip to Old Trafford. Yes, United really didn't have anything to play for but I could see Sir Alex breaking out the "we can't give them hope that they're at our level going into next season" motivational ploys as part of his pre-match speech. I was also hopeful that Sir Alex would field a full strength team because the opportunity to contribute heavily to Chelsea not making the Champions League next season might tilt the recruiting wars the way of United despite Chelsea's ability to spend more. Certainly the Falcao's of the world would think twice about choosing Chelsea over, say, PSG if PSG had an easy road to the Champions League each season and Chelsea were coming off of consecutive finishes outside the top four with no Champions League title this season to save their spot for the next edition. Throw in the fact that this might diminish Jose Mourinho's interest in taking the Chelsea job over the summer and Sir Alex's job at United would certainly be easier next season if United beat Chelsea on Sunday.
With all of these various thoughts swirling around in my head, it was time for the weekend's matches to start. What had been the slow torture of Arsenal dangling on the precipice of next season's Champions League turned into 270 minutes of very focused torture.
Spurs vs. Southampton
Tottenham were ROTTEN. The Saints were definitely the better team if, indeed, this match that contained this little in the way of entertainment value could have been said to have a better team. Hugo Lloris, who has been adequate but hardly great since unseating Brad Friedel in net, turned in one of his better performances but otherwise, it was almost as if Spurs were the team that had nothing to play for. On the match went, further and further into the second half with no score. The only thing that made the match watchable was the fact that Spurs might drop crucial points. If this match had been played in October, I would have turned the channel to the much more exciting West Brom vs. Wigan match in an instant (think on that for a minute). In what would become the torturous trend of the weekend though, after 85+ minutes of getting my hopes up, Gareth Bale's thunderbolt - aided and abetted by a lack of any defensive help from the middle of the field on the hottest player in the league - dashed my hopes of a positive result for Arsenal. I let out a big sigh and comforted myself with the thought that I hadn't been expecting Spurs to drop any points so while frustrating, the result was expected.
QPR vs. Arsenal
Due to the delay in the start of the Spurs match caused by traffic around White Hart Lane, there were only a few minutes between the final whistle at the Lane and the start of the match at Loftus Road. With out of town guests soon to arrive, I was off to walk the dogs quickly and get back for as much of the Arsenal match as possible before we had to start being properly social. The walk took just long enough that I missed Theo Walcott's opener within the first thirty seconds. As it turns out, this deprived me of the chance to see the lone Arsenal-related highlight of the weekend as it happened. Yes, I've seen it on replay about 30 times by now but there's nothing quite like seeing your team score a crucial goal as it happens. What I did get to see was almost all of the ensuing 90 minutes of mediocrity where I was doing little other than living in fear of this week's version of the Sagna brainfart at Old Trafford happening. The kick-off delay at Spurs meant that I went almost 3 consecutive hours on the edge of my seat - first hoping Spurs wouldn't score and then praying Arsenal wouldn't concede with only a 10 minute dog walk and a missed Theo Walcott goal as respite.
As you all well know by now, Arsenal did their part and my heart was allowed to go back to normal for the rest of Saturday while I waited for Sunday and the big clash at Old Trafford. The expected had happened on Saturday but it certainly hadn't been an easy thing getting there.
Manchester United vs. Chelsea
Fortunately, our houseguests for the weekend (my wife's sister and her husband) are soccer people. Both my wife and her sister played growing up and her sister had the good fortune to marry a guy who played Division III soccer. If gambling were legal, it might be that Jeff's interest has been piqued because we have a standing multi-sport bet between my wife's brother (Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Liverpool), Jeff (Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, and now Chelsea), and myself (Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles, and Arsenal) on which team has the best season. Given the (theoretical) bet, Jeff being present to rub in the advantage in our (theoretical) bet if Chelsea won, and the consequences for Arsenal's Champions League spot it was a big event in the Thurman living room.
As the (almost unwatchable) Liverpool Derby mercifully drew to a close, I was certainly not best pleased to see that Sir Alex chose what I'd consider a weak line-up for the match. Beyond the decision not to start Wayne Rooney (who hasn't been playing well), anytime Anderson gets a start you have to think that Sir Alex isn't taking things too seriously. When the "creative wheelhouse" is Anderson and Tom Cleverley (who has potential but certainly hasn't produced much yet), it has more of an early round FA Cup feel to it than a "match we want to win at all costs" feel. The Lindegaard over David De Gea decision just exacerbated my angst. The only saving grace was seeing that Rafa was right there with Sir Alex has he started Victor Moses - another player who has showed potential but hasn't produced much with it yet - over Eden Hazard.
The match unfolded as another difficult-to-watch affair that - like the Spurs/Southampton match - would have been turned off in favor of whatever the first family activity of the day turned out to be if not for the stakes of the match. Like Spurs before them, Chelsea led me on for the better part of 90 minutes thinking that the match would end in the deserved nil-nil scoreline that would ensure that no matter the result of the Chelsea vs. Spurs match in mid-week, Arsenal would come out of the weekend in the top four and in control of their own Champions League destiny with very winnable matches against Wigan and Newcastle to finish up the season. Like Spurs before them, Chelsea scored a late goal out of pretty much nothing. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
So, just to sum up quickly that's 270 minutes of decidedly unentertaining football where nearly every single minute that I watched taunted me. Nearly 180 minutes of thinking that Chelsea and/or Spurs would drop points only to have them score undeserved late winners (based on their overall performances - the actual goal-scoring plays were oases of good football in a desert of mediocrity) and nearly 90 minutes of agonizing about a potential Arsenal gaffe. Along the way I was forced to root for Manchester United (which made me feel dirty) and now I'm forced to root for Chelsea in mid-week (which makes me feel even dirtier).
Tell me again why I spend my time this way?