Ed Chamberlin: Gunners can fire
Ed Chamberlin looks at the Premier League title race, Vuelta a Espana and this weekend's racing in his latest column.
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Last Sunday was typical of the Barclays Premier League. We saw a screamer from Hatem Ben Arfa, some brilliant passing football from Arsenal, and then an end-to-end thriller at St Mary's. The three games we have shown at 4pm on Super Sunday this season have produced 14 goals and no end of drama and entertainment.
How appropriate that Manchester United marked Sir Alex Ferguson's 1,000th League game in charge with a 92nd minute winner. How many times have we seen that, an injury-time winner, in his previous 999? Reaching 1,000 League games is yet another incredible achievement for Sir Alex, especially when you consider that discounting him the average tenure for a Premier League manager is just 55 games.
For 87 minutes on Sunday afternoon St Mary's was jumping, the studio was rocking with Matt Le Tissier on the edge of his seat and those punters who'd backed Southampton at 5/1 with Sky Bet must have been counting their money.
However, as so often in this League, there was a massive sting in the tale as Robin van Persie notched Premier League goals number 99 and 100 to break Saints' hearts and make bookmakers cry in to their Sunday tea - yet again.
Once again the first three weekends have shown that the only thing that's predictable about the Premier League is its unpredictability, which makes life so hard for punters. Many will be frustrated that we now pause for an international week, whose matches don't float my boat from a punting point of view, but it does give us a chance to take stock, reflect on the first three games and the closing of the transfer window.
So far Manchester City's Premier League title odds have drifted a fraction from where they started the season, Man Utd have shortened from 11/5 to 15/8, Chelsea from 5/1 to 100/30, Arsenal are 14/1, while Liverpool and Tottenham's price has drifted dramatically to 66/1. In contrast, the odds on Andre Villas Boas and Brendan Rogers being the first Premier league manager to leave their job have been slashed in to 5/1, which seems crazy after just three League games in charge.
The best thing for me about this season is the wealth of attacking talent in the League and the way a small, gifted number 10 has come in to fashion. Gary Neville touched on it on our first Monday Night Football show of the season when he explained that out-and-out wing play is almost dead as creative players wander all over the field. In his days at right back he would know exactly where his man would be for most of the game but now 'wingers' pop up all over the place.
So many number 10s are now small, fast, and elusive with quick feet and brilliant awareness. Leading the way are new recruits Eden Hazard, Shinji Kagawa, and Santi Cazorla. This kind of player is in vogue at the moment and City and Chelsea, in particular, have a conveyor belt of them - Silva, Tevez, Nasri, Mata, Oscar etc. Even a club like Swansea has signed Michu, who has been a revelation so far, and Southampton have more than doubled their transfer record to sign Gaston Ramires. This all bodes well for the Premier League.
I think Cazorla might be the best of the lot and he could really ignite Arsenal this season. I got plenty of stick on Twitter when, at a time when everyone was writing off Arsenal post RvP, I wrote that Arsenal could still have a really good season. My timeline was full again two weeks ago when I said 18/1 looked a big price about Arsenal as I was impressed by their opening two performances, especially from Cazorla and their back four.
As former Arsenal striker Alan Smith explained on Super Sunday, they've looked a different proposition at the back, which has got his mate Steve Bould's fingerprints all over it. That is despite being without their number one goalkeeper and first choice centre half.
While the Manchester clubs have conceded 10 goals between them, Arsenal have been rock solid at the back and started with three clean sheets for the first time in 88 years.
"If the back four can continue to develop under Bould they will lay excellent foundations for Cazorla, Wilshere and co to exploit. Then if they can get Podolski and Giroud scoring goals, Arsenal will really be in business and even 14/1 might be a big each-way price."
The Tour of Spain has been the best race of the year by a mile. Monday's stage from Gijon to Cuitu Negro was the most brutal I have seen in a long time. At the end of it our 10/1 each way bet on Joaquim Rodriguez looked home and hosed as the riders waved goodbye to the mountains.
Rodriguez led by 28 seconds, was trading at 1/5 to finish in the red jersey and the race looked done and dusted. Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde had thrown everything at the man they call 'Purito' in the mountains, who had repelled every attack and usually nipped in front of them at the finish.
However, on Wednesday the race was blown apart, as Rodriguez's team fell apart, on a routine flat stage. It was a sensational piece of aggressive, tactical riding by Contador to crack Rodriguez and snatch the lead back.
Without the one big stain on his CV from his drugs ban, Contador would be being hailed as one of the greatest cyclists of all time and on Wednesday we saw him back to his best.
Prior to that he hadn't been firing on all cylinders as he accelerated away from his rivals on the steep slopes but without the power in his legs to maintain it. When that element returns with more racing I reckon he'll be near unbeatable and with the Tour de France planners set to unveil a tough route to mark their 100th anniversary, I think Contador's a near certainty at 2/1 with Sky Bet.
I put last year's defeat in France down to Contador's attempt to do the Giro/Tour double. It's pretty much impossible to feature in back-to-back Grand Tours these days and Chris Froome is clearly not the same rider in Spain that we saw in France. He'll be a different proposition next July but I have a feeling Contador is on a different level to the rest.
This time next week we'll be looking forward to the St Leger, which is shaping up as a clash between Camelot and John Gosden, Ireland v England.
This weekend we have some top racing in Ireland and England, with Group One races at Haydock and Leopardstown, with the latter's off at 5.45pm giving jockeys the possibility of riding in both.
Nathaniel is Sky Bet's 11/8 favourite to win the Irish Champion Stakes and is going to be tough to beat despite coming up against the the amazing five-year-old Snow Fairy. She will be bidding for a seventh Group One success and was brilliant at Deauville on her return, but this will be a much sterner test.