Conspiracy theorists who saw something sinister in the fact that all three clubs seemed to have been given a "soft" fixture immediately following their draining experiences were no doubt gratified by the results: United dropped two points at home to Wimbledon, Chelsea contrived to lose at Watford and Arsenal needed a late goal for victory after being outplayed for a while at Southampton.
Although United are favoured this afternoon with another home game, against Southampton, while Arsenal receive Watford, the Premier League denied yesterday that any special dispensation was being made. That tends to be confirmed by Chelsea's fixture - a long haul to Middlesbrough - and also by next weekend's schedule: following another round of Champions' League games, United must visit Chelsea and Arsenal have a demanding derby game at West Ham.
While there can be no doubt that a midweek trip to Kipling's "faraway places with strange sounding names" can be draining, as well as interfering with preparations for the next match, the three clubs coped particularly well with it last season. After 26 European ties between them, the only defeats immediately afterwards were United's at Highbury, following their 3-3 draw at home to Barcelona, and Arsenal's at Aston Villa, where a much- changed team lost 3-2. United's defender Jaap Stam, becoming well-versed in the hectic ways of English football, said yesterday: "Up to now I think the players have been able to cope with it, but you never know how long you can keep it up. You have to take it easy when you don't play, and take your rest."
Even with Roy Keane and Andy Cole resting involuntarily today, the temptation might be to dismiss Southampton as less than fearsome visitors: despite upsetting United from time to time at The Dell, they have lost their last 10 away matches against them. Mark Hughes, sent off against Manchester City in midweek, will be one Saint (sic) particularly keen to improve on that against his first club.
Visiting places like Old Trafford, Highbury and (once upon a time) Anfield has different effects on different teams. Watford, like Wimbledon, have tended to be inspired to irreverence rather than cowed into docility, especially when making the short journey into London. In their prime, Graham Taylor's upstarts used to bounce into places like Highbury and White Hart Lane and win about 4-2; even in their relegation season they did the double over Arsenal, with the help of goals by Taylor's current assistants, Luther Blissett and Kenny Jackett. A record of three victories in six games beyond the marble halls, added to more recent - and relevant - successes against Liverpool and Chelsea, suggests Watford's workaholics will make life difficult for the home side. Whether they can score a goal or two this time is another matter.
A dearth of goals was expected from Watford this season, but hardly from Chelsea, who were out-Smarted at Vicarage Road last Saturday as well as in Berlin on Tuesday. One goal from open play by a Chelsea player in the last 10 and a half hours' football is a wretched return, and the Riverside, Middlesbrough, all pumped up for Juninho's return to the Premiership, is not the ideal location to improve on it: Chelsea have never scored there.
Gianluca Vialli, having added extra shooting practice to a discussion with his players that lasted 90 minutes, plus stoppage time for translation and fouls by Dennis Wise, said: "We are not scoring enough goals from the chances we are creating, and this is something we've got to work on."
While other Premiership teams were sharpening their shooting against lower-grade opposition in the Worthington Cup - even Sheffield Wednesday scored, and won, ahead of today's visit to Sunderland - the most relaxed sides this weekend should be the Uefa Cup quartet, who were without any European commitment but are excused Worthington duty. Two of them, Leeds and Newcastle, meet at Elland Road, where the visitors will hope to demonstrate the benefits of a full week on the training ground with Bobby Robson.
West Ham, glad of the rest after totting up 13 matches already this season, resume at Coventry, and Tottenham go to Wimbledon tomorrow for a fixture that has often had more than its share of bad feeling.
On the subject of which, how good did the might of Merseyside feel, being messed about by Hull City and Oxford United in a European week? Liverpool and Everton must wait until Monday to take their frustrations out on each other.Reuse content