Fairy tales in football

Published: Thursday | December 12, 2013 Comments 0
Hubert Lawrence
Hubert Lawrence
Van Persie
Van Persie

It's the stuff of a sporting fairy tale. After a stuttering start, a new manager takes a big club from well down the standings to victory in the most watched football league in the world. It's a long shot for David Moyes and Manchester United, who face a long road to catch impressive English Premier League (EPL) leaders Arsenal. Incredibly, it's been done before.

Ironically, if the Scot is to pull his new club from ninth and 22 points, he'd do well to follow the example of Arsene Wenger. In 1997-1998, the Frenchman was in his first full season at Highbury, Arsenal's home before its move across the road to the Emirates Stadium. On January 1, 1998, Arsenal were in sixth place 11 points behind Manchester United.

Moyes might have to copy the Wenger recovery template. The Arsenal manager went to the transfer market and acquired mercurial Frenchman Emmanuel Petit and Dutch winger Marc Overmars. As the season progressed, Wenger's men went on a tear. There was a string of nine consecutive wins. That led to a Premiership title for Wenger in his first season at Highbury.

Moyes has to strengthen the United squad he inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson and copying Wenger might not be a bad thing. In Petit, Wenger acquired a midfielder of the highest quality and Overmars was a wing raider with pace and intent.

Wenger had another ace. Overmars' Dutch teammate, Dennis Bergkamp, poured in 16 Premier League goals and 22 in all competitions to see the Gunners through. Not only did the London club win the EPL, but Arsenal snagged the FA Cup as well.

Moyes has a fine Dutch striker of his own at United in the person of Robin van Persie.

Van Persie is a dangerous customer. In his last season at Arsenal he poured in 30 EPL goals and last season helped United to the EPL title with 26. This season, with injuries keeping him out, he has only scored seven times.

If Moyes can improve the service the 30 year-old Dutchman gets from midfield, the high- scoring ex-Arsenal captain could do a Bergkamp.

midfield troubles

Therein lies the rub. Unless really big money is on the table, big-link men aren't likely to move at this point of the season. Moyes' midfield troubles are so chronic that he had been forced to play 40-year-old iron man Ryan Giggs and defender Phil Jones in the middle of the park. Matters have been made worse with injury woes for England man Michael Carrick.

Moyes needs Wayne Rooney to continue his fine form and to avoid the referee's card pack. Rooney missed the home loss to Newcastle United because of accumulated bookings. When he is on the field, in tandem with van Persie or playing as an attacking midfielder, he adds quality and energy.

The manager needs defenders too, as Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have both lost the proverbial step.

The 97-98 Arsenal isn't the only team to overcome a big year-end deficit to gain the EPL title and there's no golden rule about the year-end leaders going on to glory. In fact, in the 21-year history of the EPL, the year-end leaders have won only 11 times. On the other 10 occasions, a team has come from behind to win.

Manchester United was third and nine points down on Newcastle when 1996 dawned. At the same point in 1997, United had five points to make up on Liverpool, but won both titles.

This statistical review might encourage Manchester United fans, but catching up won't be easy.

Wenger's current Arsenal team is mightily impressive. The arrival of Mesut Ozil, the German maestro, seems to have lifted the whole team. Aaron Ramsey of Wales, in particular has been playing at a high level. With returnee Mathieu Flamini providing extra defensive cover, the Gunners are frugal at the back too.

Any team that can beat the outstanding Borussia Dortmund, as the Gunners recently did in the European Champions League, deserves respect.

Manchester United have beaten Arsenal this season, but the Gunners can't be Moyes' only worry. In-between the two clubs are fine teams from Liverpool, Manchester City, Everton, Tottenham and Southampton - all bidding for top-four finishes and places in next season's Champions League.

As Liverpool found out recently, teams like Hull City are no pushovers either.

Moyes has a real fight on his hands.

His best bet is to imitate the 1997-1998 Wenger with shrewd trips to the transfer market. Then he must massage his Dutch star, van Persie, back to full scoring efficiency. A little luck wouldn't hurt either. In the 0-1 home loss to Everton, United hit the woodwork.

Finally, he has to hope that Wenger's 2013-2014 Arsenal and the other eight leading teams come back to him and United. Fairy tales do sometimes come true, but from here, it looks like a tall order.

Hubert Lawrence has made notes at trackside since 1980.



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