Exciting times in the race for eighth. Before the weekend's fixtures, Newcastle were looking dead on their feet: their best player sold, their manager under pressure, and three league defeats on the spin. Southampton, meanwhile, were gliding along just nicely: six games unbeaten in the league, their commitment to triumphing in this squeakiest of Premier League tussles underlined by Mauricio Pochettino's decision to rest first-teamers for an relatively winnable FA Cup tie at Sunderland. Eyes on the prize, Mauricio!
Now: oh football! Oh caprice! Southampton were downed 3-1 by Kevin Nolan's West Ham, while Newcastle overcame Aston Villa at home thanks to a Loic Remy goal, the Frenchman having done outstandingly well to stay awake until the 92nd minute. (Not that anybody noticed, since anybody with an ounce of common sense and an internet connection was watching Liverpool and Swansea on the other side.) Newcastle on 40 points, Southampton on 39. It literally couldn't be closer. Are you not entertained? No? Well then.
That the race for eighth doesn't reward its winner with a trophy, or a European place, or really much of anything, is a shame. Because there are nearly three months of the season left and all that's left for Pochettino and Pardew's men to shoot for is a slight differential in eventual winnings, which probably won't warrant an open-top bus.
Despite their similar points totals, perceptions of the two teams have differed markedly. Southampton are one of the feel-good stories of the season: a young exciting team filled with young exciting Englishmen playing modern exciting football under a young exciting manager. Newcastle, on the other hand, are widely derided as a farce-in-waiting, so much so though that prior to the Villa game there were rumours -- swiftly-denied, of course -- that Pardew's job was in the balance.
Both those positions seems a touch overstated when compared to the reality. Southampton have done unambiguously brilliantly since returning to the Premier League, of course, but that brilliance has been built as much on canny purchasing -- Jose Fonte, Dejan Lovren, and Morgan Schneiderlin in particular -- as on their admirable academy. And as for Newcastle, while Mike Ashley, Alan Pardew, and the dearly departed Joe Kinnear are all different flavours of ridiculous, to be comfortably eighth with much the same side that finished sixteenth last season is certainly A Good Place To Be, however depressing some of the surrounding nonsense.
But above all that, the two teams' relative security has a dampening effect: too far from the bottom for the enervation of existential crisis; too far from the top for even the faintest whiff of silver polish; out of the cups as well, obviously. Essentially, and to all intents and purposes, done. Victims to that most pernicious of footballing maladies: drift.
Nothing kills football the way drift kills football. The edge leaves the crowd, the emotions -- positive and negative -- don't fizz in the same way. Each game becomes just itself, without larger import, and this is never good in a sport like football, where games are frequently appalling. It's tempting to assume that this gets to the players and the team as well, that the knowledge of safe irrelevance causes thoughts to drift away from the matter in hand and towards, say, the seven-star hotels of Dubai, or the precise wording of a transfer request, or whether this or that tackle might best be avoided. There's a World Cup coming up, after all. The ankles will need to be in tip-top shape.
Certainly, both teams played like their minds were elsewhere. Against West Ham, Southampton played much the same game they've played all season, with good shape in defence and decent patterns in attack. Except this time they kept falling asleep and making Sam Allardyce look good. Newcastle, meanwhile, held an eighty minute silence for Sir Tom Finney, before getting their heads together enough to nick it at the end. On Sky Sports, Niall Quinn nominated Aston Villa's Ashley Westwood as man of the match, on the basis that nothing actually happened until he'd limped off. You saw what he was getting at, but at the same time, that kind of says it all.
Well, perhaps. It's a general presumption that some kind of tangible motive is useful when it comes to performing at very high levels, and while there's obviously more to winning a football match than really really wanting to, it can certainly help. But on the other hand, for every player that thrives on the pressure of relegation or a title chase, there's another who melts or bursts or sublimes into a cloud of whimpering atoms just when they're meant to be picking up the man at a corner. Pressure is good except when it isn't, in other words. Presuming homogeneity across a group of people as diverse in their personalities and motivations as footballers and football managers seems a bit of a stretch.
An alternative reading is that two teams of perfectly adequate professionals just happened to run into either in-form and super-motivated opposition, or the lingering trauma of being without Yohan Cabaye. Perhaps drift isn't the only problem; perhaps, at least in part, it's the overactive imagination of the neutral trying to extract some meaning from a game that, in the tale of a season, is of relatively small importance.
Such is the cost of taking care of business earlier in the season. Southampton's start (they lost only once in their first ten games) and Newcastle's middle (after losing to Sunderland at the end of October, they won seven of the next nine) put them in this comfortable position in the first place, and the widespread incompetence of the teams below them have kept them out of the sticky stuff. Decent work, but terrifically bad storytelling. No dramatic collapse, no final rally. No third act climax. A good season; a crap film. Newcastle and Southampton have, bar something hilarious and inexplicable, got all their work done early. It's not their fault everybody's still watching.