What a missed opportunity this season has been.
Newcastle 0-0 Manchester United
If Arsenal had managed to recover their composure after the Carling Cup final defeat, they would surely now be favourites for the title.
If, If, If
To suggest that Arsenal could have "recovered their composure" implies that they had any to begin with, which is, on the basis of recent seasons, highly debatable.
But the fact remains: opportunity knocked, and instead of answering the door, Arsenal bolted it, drew the curtains and hid under the bed.
Manchester United will still be Champions, but there is a temptation here to use the word "default". Their home form is amazing- two points dropped all season. Their away performances have been constantly unconvincing- often with results to match. All of their away victories (a paltry five) have involved an element of good fortune.
Arsenal's away form has been the best in the league. Their problem is the reverse of United's. All season, the Gunners have tried and failed to gain some momentum at home. There have been precious few convincing or even enjoyable home performances in the league. The Chelsea game stands out as a high point, but also, as I said recently, an aberration. More representative examples are the inexplicable capitulations to West Brom and Newcastle, the unforgivable collapse against Spurs, the boring, goalless draws of recent weeks. Much is made of the lack of atmosphere at the Emirates, but the Highbury Library saw a fair amount of success despite its usually hushed ambience. This season, the atmosphere has mostly reflected the performances- insipid, lacking in dynamism. An air of resignation at times.
There is an air of resignation now about Arsenal's title hopes, despite another mini-slump from United. The players' media rhetoric is hollow, and borders on insulting at times. "We will not give up", they say. Recent performances suggest they already have.
Perhaps United's overall lack of intensity against Newcastle owed something to the ever-growing conviction that Arsenal would not take this title even if you tried to hand it to them. There was no great sense at the end of the game that United had suffered a genuine blow. Arsenal could, theoretically, give the leaders something to think about if they were to win convincingly at Spurs tomorrow night.
I would have been more confident of a win if United had actually beaten Newcastle. That's how much I doubt the character of this Arsenal team. Had United won, there would be a sense of freedom, perhaps, in Arsenal's play, safe in the knowledge that the title was out of sight. As it is, United's dropped points will probably only increase the feeling that Arsenal have messed up their big chance. They will feel that a win would give them hope, but also know, deep down, that if they were going to win this season's title, they would have got their act together long before now.