Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Game in Hand is worth two in real life

The Scottish Souse stretches his arms before another barcrawl

United are marching towards another Premier League title, buoyed by the strength of their squad and the unerring confidence of the collective. It is, begrudgingly, a sight to behold, especially as witnessed at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.

With Ronaldo shooting from all angles, seemingly unable to miss, and the tireless hustle of Wayne Rooney, it's become dispiriting for the chasing pack who, even when given a small window of opportunity to make up ground (I'm looking at you, Liverpool), have never quite been able to get within touching distance.

For all of United's irritating, frustrating might, I'd argue that one force has been far stronger this season, looming large over the heads of fellow title chasers, gnawing
at their spirit.

Despite the fact that United's squad have played 61 games already this season, it's the one they haven't played that has made the biggest difference.

Before Christmas, United took a trip out to Asia for The Club World Cup, a gloriously empty and unnecessary tournament that provides money, minimal excitement (just look at the teams involved!), a slew of meaningless trophies -- not just a "Golden Ball", but a "Silver Ball", a "Bronze Ball", and then a Top Scorer Award (something I thought the "Golden Ball" would have covered, but there you go), a Fair Play Award (lame), and then a Winning Manager award, something I reckoned might be folded into the actual trophy for winning the damn thing.

In short, it's a FIFA moneyspinner and a way for them to keep the outlying soccer federations happy via bags of unmarked banknotes and suit pockets lined with gold. It says a lot that the tournament disappeared for 4 years only to reappear in newer, shinier, shittier form.

Anyway, I'm backing off the main point here. The Club World Cup gave United a fortnight's break from the frosty rigors of the EPL. While their biggest challengers were suffering and playing in games of consequence, Fergie's lads put their feet up and prepared for two difficult matches against Gamba Osaka and LDU Quito.

Then, upon their return, they slowly, diligently set about making up their missed matches in order to catch up with everyone else. Or not.

You see, they were supposed to play Wigan in the EPL on December 20th, a date slap-bang in the middle of their Club World Cup jaunt. And so, while other fixtures were rescheduled due to their participation in 9,161 competitions this season, this hanging chad of a home game with Wigan Athletic has been allowed to carry over into the middle of May.

By all intents and purposes, that's a fucking disgrace.

The psychological impact of a game-in-hand is immense in any sport. Opponents know that their own team's record only tells half the story when trying to keep pace with other title hopefuls. Well, it's nice if Liverpool or Chelsea win this weekend to close the gap to 2 points, but that gap is essentially 5 points pending United's tidy sweep-up of their game-in-hand. And so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes.

While other teams have played massively condensed fixture lists in order to keep up (I believe Arsenal played a stretch of 5 games in 12-15 days at one point because they were behind in FA Cup games or Carling Cup games or something? Gooner fans, help me out here), United's dalliance with Wigan has been allowed to surf over the masses to the end of the season.

How does something like this happen? Are the two clubs immune from a mid-week fixture? How can the EPL justify their season going for the better part of five months with an asterisk hanging over its biggest club? I mean, while Liverpool, Chelsea and others have done their part in handing the title to United via draws at heartbreaking times, it could have all been so different if everyone was playing week-to-week and having the same number of games played by that Monday.

The perceived injustice stings that much more when you consider how bitter and angry Fergie gets about the fixture list to begin with. Remember back in January when he was ranting about playing all the Big 4 clubs away from home in the first half of the season? Yeah, he isn't bellyaching so much about that now.

To add to the bitterness of this article, the game-in-hand is against Wigan, coached by United's cuddliest defender of the 1990s, Steve Bruce. I'm sure that game will be as hard-fought as Dancing With The Stars.

So while we wait for United to complete the inevitable, let's not overlook the game-in-hand. Whereas baseball does this sort of thing all the time due to rain-outs, they end up compensating with double-headers. Not only that, but one game amid 162 doesn't stick out nearly as much as one game amid 38.

Next time Fergie opens his whisky-rotted mouth and comes up for air to gripe about his team's mistreatment, think of the game-in-hand. It's been a godsend for United, considering now they get to play it when it no longer means a thing.





18 comments:

Nathaniel said...

Only one caveat I would add.

Yes, they played a bunch of shit teams in Tokyo.

But they did fly to Tokyo (a pain in the ass) and sit through all the inevitable bullshit fawning press conferences and madness that is Japan.

That has to count for something in terms of interrupting your weekly match fitness/routine/whatever.

Just saying...

Sir Michilles said...

Needs a "grasping at straws" tag.

epiblast said...

I thought the Fulham match was the original one they missed, then Pompey, then Wigan which was because of their FA Cup semi final.
But your point is valid, playing in May, is not the same as playing in December by a long shot.

ü75 said...

Many things here need a "grasping at straws" tag, we just prefer not to use it.

epiblast said...

ok, i'm wrong.
this is bullshit! Wigan were on a mildly good run back then, and now they look shite.

Precious Roy said...

@SM: Really?

Ever hear the adage, it's hot who you play but when you play them.

Back in January Wigan was midtable, playing okay, and had an outside shot at Europe. At the same time, United was blanking teams, but their offense was stuttering. From Boxing Day to mid January, they dismantled such powers as Boro, Stoke, Bolton, and yes Wigan all by a 1-0 scoreline.

In fact Wigan held them scoreless for 89 minutes. United just happen to score in the first minute and hold off several late challenges.

Now, United are cruising and Wigan have nothing to play for. This match should have been played months ago. That it hasn't has benefitted United.

Precious Roy said...

hot = not.

Stupid typo.

Nathaniel said...

@PR - That's hot...

Sir Michilles said...

PR,

It was meant to be a joke, but there's a bit of truth in it.

For one thing, United have been playing two fixtures a week since the middle of February. Secondly, it's just plain dumb luck that the game in hand happens to be a team whose form has dropped in the second half of the season. If the game in hand were against, say, Tottenham (before they rolled over at Old Trafford)or another team that surged in the second half of the season, then this post probably doesn't even get written.

JT said...

Sir Michilles:

no, it still gets written. Aside from the CL games, something that's affected LFC/Arsenal/Chelsea, they have not been playing 2 a week since Feb.

EPL: 10 league games since Feb 18th.
Same as Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. No discernible extra fixtures there.

Carling Cup wrapped up on March 1 (the semis were both played in January), and only 2 FA Cup games since Feb 15th to speak of. Same for Arsenal and Chelsea, who were both still in the competition.

Their schedule has been no different than that of anyone else, by that comparison.

final note:
Arsenal have played 19 games since the middle of February (Feb 16).

Chelsea have played 18 during the same stretch.

Liverpool? 14 (they were out of the FA and Carling early, go figure).

United? 19.

It's been the same across the board, and yet the game-in-hand remained for five months! Five!

Sir Michilles said...

JT,

How dare you use these silly "facts" and "research" to completely disprove my argument. (Note: I completely misread that schedule. I just saw Saturday then Tuesday or Sunday then Wednesday and assumed they were always in the same week).

Erik Sweet said...

To the victors go the spoils.

United finished in the top four of the League (actually, they won it, but that doesn't really need to be said), so they qualified for Europe. They won in Europe, so they qualified for the Club World Cup. They won the Club World Cup, and now they get to play a mid-table, and still quite formidable Wigan team, while still having played more matches in a span of 365 days, than any other side in the world.

And for fuck's sake, anyone can beat this team! Fulham did! Liverpool did! Everton did! Why does Wigan suck so bad that they can't nudge out a victory against what could be a very tired United squad? Answer: they don't.

Which brings me to another point: when Bill Buckner let a ball go through his legs in 1986, he was forever blamed for the Red Sox losing the World Series. But they still could have won Game 7 and hoisted a trophy. So when Gomes gets called for a penalty in the Spurs game, and we score from the spot, we only get one goal. Play fucking defense and protect your lead. The same goes for this whining and complaining about the game in hand.

Play your games, be a better team, and win a fucking trophy. Don't blame your team's failings and missed opportunities on a game-in-hand, which is a luxury your squad might enjoy if they actually fucking won something.

Precious Roy said...

Ever occur to you that maybe the Sox lost Game 7 in part because they were mentally beaten before they even took the field?

Probably not.

A century's worth of "Oh shit, not again" probably does that to an organization.

Of course Buckner and Gomes also have fuck all to do with the game-in-hand discussion.

hockalees said...

It's funny being lectured about "blaming failings and missed opportunities" on perceived slights from a Utd fan. I am surprised you guys have enough time to address it with all the hand wringing over Fletcher's red.

I think LB's post points out that the 5 month delay for a replay has played to ManUtd's favor, and that it *is* a long time to wait. At least it seems awfully long. He also fairly points out that SAF moaned about the schedule earlier when he was not atop the table, and the fact that all manager's engage in gamesmanship with the FA/EPL/FIFA powers that be when it comes to scheduling.

hockalees said...

BTW, most Gunners know that that blame for winning FA this year has little to do with games in hand and lies at the feet of Arsene Wenger's recent transfer policies. Kieran Gibbs tried to kick the blame away from Arsene's feet but fell over on the way there, Fabianski ran out from the goal to clear it away and ended up 5 yds past AW, and Bendtner managed to get a foot on it but sent it 20 feet over the bar.

Erik Sweet said...

@hockalees:

In a comment I posted earlier this week, I agreed with the ref's decision to penalize Fletcher, send him off, and award Arsenal with a penalty kick. The only hand-wringing I'm doing is over how Fletch will have to miss the Final, which is a shame as this season might be his best ever for the club.

The only disagreement I have is over the rule itself. Fletcher was trying to play the ball, and fouled Fabregas in the process. He didn't do it maliciously, or with intent to injure. If he did, he should miss the Final. But as such, it was more of a "professional foul," and while the in-game punishment was justified, the further dismissal from the tournament is a shame.

/threadjack. (sorry.)

Precious Roy said...

Don't you think that if you're in the box and you have to go through the player to get to the ball that you've kind of been beaten?

After the touch Fletcher made a mess of Fabregas and scissored his legs. Fletcher might feed homeless puppies in his spare time, and it would be swell if such a nice person could play in the final, but it was still an easy penalty call. He'll have good seats though.

The Fan's Attic said...

as you say, a "professional foul" in the box is a cynical foul and if you are the last man back it is deserving of a red card.