FORTY FOUR YEARS
Arsenal vs. West Bromwich Albion
The 44th And Final Pat Rice Cup
Sunday, May 13, 3PM BT/10AM ET/7AMPT
The Hawthorns, Birmingham Road, West Bromwich, B71 4LF
Form: Out the window, it's the last day of the season
WBA's SBN Internet Dealio: What an adorable puppy!
Televisual Coverings: Fox Soccer 2 Go and maybe some regional Fox networks
I like data. I like numbers. I'm not really good at generating them, but I am quite good at reading and interpreting them, and I understand and appreciate the value they bring to any sort of analysis effort. Without concrete data, after all, all you do is guess. I particularly like numbers in sports, because one of the things I hate most in life is conventional wisdom, and numbers help destroy conventional wisdom where it needs to be destroyed - or help to prove that a particular piece of conventional wisdom is actually correct. However!
This is the last day of the season, and Arsenal's task really couldn't be any clearer. Win, and third place (and the resultant Champions League spot) is guaranteed; any other result means that Arsenal's European fate is no longer assured. So here we sit the day before the game, and I could give you all the relevant stats, all the relevant data, and a bunch of illustrative points that prove that Arsenal should, in fact, beat WBA pretty much at a canter.
But it's the last day of the season, and at the end of the day, I like sports more than I like numbers, so today is the day I bust out all the stupid clichès. Today's the day I say, unashamedly, give it 110 percent. Leave it all on the field. Win it for the shirt. Kiss the goddamn badge. Win it for Pat Rice. Prove that playing for Arsenal means something. Prove that Arsenal still have what it takes. Is that enough clichès? I hope so. Anyway, this day is all about lucky talismans, about match day routines, about the stupid superstitions that I generally don't take too much of a part in - but if any day deserved them, it's tomorrow. You want tactical discussion? Aidan covered a bit of what Arsenal will need to do yesterday.
It's all too rare, especially in recent history, that Arsenal have something to play for on the final day of the season. The 'something' they have to play for this year doesn't carry a trophy, it won't merit a place in the club museum or anything more than another entry in the Wikipedia article about "Arsenal league position by year", but for a large swath of the Arsenal fanbase, it's just as important.
And for me, it's important too, but for a non-Champions League reason. It's important because Arsenal have played like ungraceful rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?) for the last few weeks, and it's important to prove that they can in fact play like Arsenal is supposed to play. It's important because Arsenal should never have to struggle to beat the West Broms of the world, but that's what Arsenal have done lately. So it's important that they prove that they are the team that can easily beat the West Broms of the world, and what better place to start than by beating West Brom right before summer vacation?
One of the things I've always loved about the First Division/Premier League is their final day of the season practice of starting every game at the same time - it ratchets up the tension for both the fans and the teams, because nobody knows what their rivals are up to. Sunday is no different - it makes me wish I had 10 televisions with 10 separate feeds so I could watch them all. But I can't, so I'll watch whatever's on TV and be following Arsenal online, hoping that all the clichès worked.
West Brom get a legendary case of last-day-of-school-itis, and spend the entire first half chasing Arsenal players around and asking them to sign their yearbooks. At the half time whistle, it's 14-0 Arsenal. The Gunners then spend the second half recreating all the hazing scenes from Dazed and Confused on the West Brom players, to the extent that Arsene Wenger is caught screaming "NOW FRY LIKE BACON, YOU LITTLE FRESHMAN PIGGIES!" at the West Brom subs bench as the final whistle blows. The Baggies then have to do their lap of honor covered in ketchup, mustard, and flour. Awkward applause ensues from the crowd, who aren't sure whether to be amused or horrified.
At the post match press conference, when asked about the second half, Wenger looks at the camera and says "Now me and my loser friends are going to head out to buy Aerosmith tickets. Top priority of the summer".