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ýIt is a familiar enough idea and one that is hard to resist this time of year, whether for the title, relegation or promotion: looking at the games to come of the contenders and predicting where they will drop or pick up points. For those who attempted this exercise for the Premier League at the end of last week, it has been a forlorn start.
Chelsea's defeat at Crystal Palace invalidated most such calculations, and Manchester City's failure to take all three points from a far tougher assignment at the Emirates affects many assessments of their prospects. Tony Cascarino had eight columns in Friday's Times to proclaim Chelsea champions by a point with Liverpool five adrift of City after going match by match; Alan Smith was less detailed but said: "Chelsea are left with a great run of games. You could easily see them winning every one."
The point here is not to poke fun at the individual match predictions; the selections are rarely especially controversial and by dubbing their man Mystic Tony the Times were hinting that the exercise was more fun than fact-based. Chelsea were obvious favourites against Palace and at half-time City were on course against Arsenal; it is eminently possible Liverpool will lose at home to both their rivals, the results that relegate them from first to third in Cascarino's mind. Such defeats would still have that effect despite this weekend's results, though if he is right about everything else then Manuel Pellegrini will collect the title on goal difference.
In seasons past I have gone through matches in advance, setting targets (or trying to work out what managers' targets would be) and then judging success or failure. Even for a title contender facing two home and two away games against teams from the bottom half, ten points is the reasonable expectation and 12 points only ever a hope.
As anyone who has tried to put together an accumulator will tell you, predicting four results accurately is fiendishly difficult; the idea that anyone can call 18 games (Chelsea's six, City's eight, Liverpool's four excluding the games against the others) close to correctly is true fantasy football.
Nor does your memory need to be especially long to recall unexpected setbacks derailing the elite. Younger readers may be interested to know that back in the years when Manchester United were title contenders, they threw away an eight-point lead over the final six matches of the 2011-12 season.
Manchester City always had a home derby to look forward to but still their cause looked hopeless after a three-match winless run culminated in defeat at Arsenal on 8 April. Five weeks later it was "Sergio AGUEEEERRRROOOO" time.
United's 4-4 home draw with Everton has especial resonance, initially because of the drama and the fact if put City's fate back in their hands, and now because it remains arguably David Moyes' best result at Old Trafford (and maybe helped him get the job a year later). But first came an even more unexpected blow for Sir Alex Ferguson's side at Wigan.
A draw for Roberto Martinez's side would have been a surprise: Wigan had played United 14 times and lost 14 times. But the profoundly unexpected happened as United lost their cushion to Shaun Maloney's goal, opening the way for Everton's comeback from 4-2 down to leave Ferguson's team vulnerable to Vincent Kompany's Eastlands winner. The fact that City then came so desperately close to blowing it at home to QPR should be another reminder that no match is as straightforward as it appears.
Four years before helping out City, the Latics achieved another crucial result, that time to tip the balance in United's favour. Avram Grant's Almost Chelsea were outsiders in April 2008, six points behind United as they kicked off at Stamford Bridge against Wigan on the second Monday of the month - but with this as a game in hand and a home match against United to come, there was the chance to draw level on points.
As it turned out, Chelsea did beat United in a fractious game at Stamford Bridge but had failed to overcome Wigan - Emile Heskey's 90th-minute goal earning his side's first point against the Blues, at the sixth attempt. United could afford their own slip, a draw at Blackburn - and then complete their then-customary win over Wigan to seal the title on the last day.
Occasionally teams do put together the kind of run that brooks no opposition. Arsene Wenger's Invincibles drew a few but their predecessors from 2001-02 won their final 14, and in 1997-98 a run of ten wins secured the title with two (subsequently lost) games to spare. But in 2003, Arsenal gave up a two-goal lead to draw at Bolton and then lost at home to relegation-threatened Leeds, surrendering the title to Manchester United. By and large teams stumble - looking back, it is surprising how many hiccoughs Sir Alex Ferguson's sides endured during run-ins (albeit on occasion when they were streets ahead).
It is possible that one of the leading trio could storm through the next few weeks but far more likely is that all will drop points, and not just in those conspicuous meetings at Anfield.
Not that that's a prediction, of course. Just a statement of probability. And here's a suggestion: let's just enjoy it.