By Partick Mather.
Following Chelsea’s dismal performance, particularly in the second half, at Ewood Park last weekend, the media toed the usual line that southern teams didn’t fare well in their travels to the north. This led me to question that particular theory. Although usually aimed at Arsenal, this jibe has recently been attached more commonly to Chelsea, given their losses to Wigan and Manchester City. However, those games are anomalies in this particular debate for two different reasons. Firstly, Wigan’s victory was their first ever against one of the so-called ‘Big Four’, plus the DW Stadium can hardly lay claim to possessing a volatile atmosphere – to have that you’d actually need to fill more than half of the stadium.
As for Manchester City, they are the most expensively assembled side in the league and are hardly renowned for kicking their opponents off the park. Therefore I came to the conclusion that the only two teams which can be considered as potential Northern Nightmares are Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.
Ewood Park and the Reebok Stadium have both been home to tough-tackling, determined footballers for a number of seasons, and no team in the league looks forward to those two trips, supposedly Arsenal more than most. The main criticism of Arsenal over the past few trophy-less has been their propensity to be kicked out of games by the league’s lesser clubs. However, their record in Lancashire stands up against the best in the past three seasons having dropped only two points out of a possible fifteen. Since the days of Sam Allardyce at Bolton, Arsenal have significantly improved their record at the Reebok and have won their last three at that particular ground. So, perhaps it is now Arsenal’s failures against the bigger teams that has become their biggest weakness.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea were widely chastised for not being up for the fight last Sunday afternoon. However that result was purely a blip, probably brought about by the hangover from their European exit at the hands of their former hero José Mourinho. The statistics back this up as in their previous five visits to Ewood and the Reebok they had garnered the maximum points available with five wins in five.
So the ‘Southern Softy’ tag can be dropped from the two title-chasing London sides. What then of the Premier League leaders Manchester United. Continuously praised for being able to achieve success in difficult conditions and historically having good records against both of their Lancashire neighbours, it was expected that their record would eclipse that of both of their rivals.
However of the three potential champions, it is the Old Trafford outfit that have the worst record in this particular test of strength. In the past two title-winning seasons they have had a mixed record. Last season saw two clean sheets and two victories in tight encounters, especially at the Reebok where it took until second half stoppage time for Dimitar Berbatov to win the game for United. Whilst this followed the expected trend, the 2007/2008 season was an extremely different affair. A poor performance following an international break saw United lose 1-0 to Bolton thanks to a Nicolas Anelka goal.
Then at the business end of the season, an inspired Brad Friedel couldn’t be beaten until stoppage time at the end of the match when a close-range header from Carlos Tevez spared their blushes and gained them a point. The sum total of their previous four visits is seven points from a possible twelve and some very tricky ties.
Blackburn Rovers have already played their part in the title race by taking points off Chelsea and still have a role as they are yet to host Arsenal or Manchester United. However, from my research it appears that it isn’t specifically the Southerners who find it tough at both Ewood Park and the Reebok.
Perhaps that’s why Sir Alex Ferguson is so wary of this run-in, not because of the glamour ties against Chelsea, Tottenham or City, but due to Manchester United’s difficult trip north to Lancashire. If they can overcome the hurdle at Blackburn on April 11th, they will go a long way to achieving an historic fourth consecutive title.
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