With just 10 games to go in the Premier League season, it's time to start thinking about the run-ins. Who, at the top, has got the easiest route to the title? And who, down the bottom, has got the safest path out of the mire? And what mythological creatures do these chains of fixtures most resemble; what monstrosities will the clubs be battling? These are the crucial questions, and the answers are below.
1. Leicester, 57 pts, +20 GD
Leicester were supposed to have fallen off the top a long time back. They had a miserable run of fixtures over Christmas, yet have emerged still on top. Even when they draw, other teams lose. It does seem to be going well, and they have five eminently winnable games all in a row coming up.
Then it gets nasty again. West Ham and Everton are awkward, Manchester United are weird but dangerous and Chelsea have been revived by Guus Hiddink. Essentially we're looking for something that turns up in the face of overachievement and has a massive sting in the tail. We're looking for ...
Orion, back in his pre-constellation days, was a mortal hunter. He was pretty good, too: so good that that the goddess Artemis took him as her protector; so good that he boasted that "There is no beast I cannot beat." You'd think that anybody knocking around ancient Greece would be wary about saying things like that, because there's always the chance that, say, Gaia, goddess of the earth, might be listening and send a giant scorpion to mess you up. Which is what happened. Both the scorpion and the hunter were then planted in the night sky as a warning not to get too overconfident in one's own brilliance, even when everything seems to be going well. Something for Claudio Ranieri to think about there.
2. Tottenham, 54 pts, +27 GD
You know what that is, as run-ins go? That's kind of boring. One massive game, right at the beginning, and then the usual mix of relegation scrappers, Europa League chasers and mid-table meh merchants. Sharp and dangerous, then tough but unspectacular. Or, translated over to animal form ...
Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia commons
Okay, so this fine figure of a monster isn't so much mythological as just really old and really extinct. What a wonderful thing it is, though; like a sarcastic rhinoceros, except this thing's walking at about 6'7 at the shoulders. From our point of view, however, the best feature of the noble E. caucasium is that paleontologists are unable to agree on whether it actually had a horn or not. Nobody's ever found one. And as we look forward to this weekend's big game, we too know that Arsenal might be a huge great spike of vicious pain, but they might — Petr Cech's injured, everybody's miserable — not even exist at all.
3. Arsenal, 51 pts, +16 GD
The details of Arsenal's run-in aren't really important, are they? That Tottenham game looks hideous, and that City game potentially awkward, but we could swap in any other two teams and the issues would be the same. Arsenal don't play other teams when the title's on the line. They are locked in mortal combat with ...
THEIR OWN REFLECTION!
Working on the perfectly reasonable basis that any computer game older than 15 years is essentially an ancient legend, Arsenal's run-in is the same as every other crucial run of fixtures in the Late Wengerian era. Where other teams take on other teams, they battle their reflection, their shadow, their own twisted self. They battle that bastard from Prince of Persia, and every time they hit it, it hits them back. Ow! Ow! Why are you hitting yourself? Ow! Stop hitting yourself! And ... dead.
Sadly, Arsenal's fate is much worse than the game's intriguingly blond protagonist. All he had to do to get past his shade was put his sword away, then run into the thing. Arsenal have no such option — dropping Alexis Sanchez doesn't count — and no little mouse is coming to help them.
4. Manchester City, 47 pts, +11 GD
Final 11 games: Aston Villa (H), Norwich City (A), Manchester United (H), Bournemouth (A), West Brom (H), Chelsea (A), Stoke City (H), Southampton (A), Arsenal (H), Swansea City (A) and Newcastle (A) at some point
Rather like Arsenal, there's a sense that the opposition aren't the most important factor here. Going by their performances in the last three league games — risible defeats against Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool — it seems that Manchester City have taken one look at the prospect of taking a tilt at the Premier League title, then decided to charge as quickly as possible in the opposite direction, making as much of a mess as they can on the way.
We worked backwards on this one. We were looking for an animal to characterise Manchester City's deflating title bid, and after a certain amount of brainstorming came up with an animal that has "the mane of a horse, but in all other respects resembles a bull; its horns are curved back in such a manner as to be of no use for fighting, and it is said that because of this it saves itself by running away, meanwhile emitting a trail of dung that sometimes covers a distance of as much as three furlongs, contact with which scorches pursuers like a sort of fire."
By some strange coincidence, those exact words also appear in Pliny's Naturalis Historia as a description of the bonnacon, a mythical creature from Macedonia that — yes, you did read that last bit correctly — runs away from any and all confrontation, leaving a fountain of flaming shit in its wake. The Nicolas Otamendi joke goes in here.
[shoots past midtable in a blur]
17. Sunderland, 24 pts, -19 GD
Southampton (A), Everton (H), Newcastle United (A), West Brom (H), Leicester (H), Norwich (A), Arsenal (H), Stoke (A), Chelsea (H), Watford (A)
That's not too bad, is it? But it's all about that derby: a win at St. James's Park, and you'd probably fancy Sam Allardyce to squeeze enough points out of the rest of that lot to guarantee safety. Particularly since at least two and possibly all of the last three games might come against teams with little or nothing to play for. A loss, though, given that Newcastle are chasing safety as well, and the season might be borked.
Tip for any budding engineers out there: when designing a giant bronze automaton to guard an island, it might seem tempting to configure the internal plumbing such that the ichor to keep him alive (you are using ichor, aren't you?) circulates in one massive vein around his body, accessible only through a nail in his foot. Do not do this. Otherwise you run the risk that a passing sorceress might hypnotise him and knock out the nail. Then you're left with nothing but a large puddle, an empty automaton, and a boatful of irritatingly smug Argonauts.
(The derby's the nail, you see? No? They knock it out and survive? And Jonjo Shelvey's the sorceress? Oh, come on.)
18. Norwich City, 24 pts, -22 GD
Swansea City (A), Manchester City (H), West Brom (A), Newcastle (H), Crystal Palace (A), Sunderland (H), Watford (H), Arsenal (A), Manchester United (H), Everton (A)
Perhaps Norwich's biggest advantage over the two teams from the northeast is that both the six-pointers are at Carrow Road. Survival will, in large part, come down to how well Norwich are able to take advantage of their rivals having to come and visit them, how successfully they can keep them out of their comfort zones. Which leads us to the finest home advantage/away disadvantage of ancient times ...
Antaeus was many things: he was half a giant, he was the son of Poseidon and Gaia and he was a belligerent arsehole. His schtick was to challenge passers-by to wrestling matches, then beat them thanks to the fact that he was functionally invincible while touching the ground. This he did until Hercules turned up, realised what was going on and picked him up and bear-hugged him to death. Sort of what Alex Neil needs to do to Sunderland and Newcastle — get them off their own turf and beat them then — except where Hercules had semi-divine strength, Neil has Steven Naismith. Mind you, Antaeus was pretty good at wrestling, where as Sunderland and Newcastle are awful at football. We'll call that about even.
19. Newcastle United, 24 pts, -23 GD
Final 11 games: Bournemouth (H), Leicester (A), Sunderland (H), Norwich (A), Southampton (A), Swansea City (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H), Aston Villa (A), Tottenham (H), and Manchester City (H) at some point
Newcastle's biggest advantage is that they have a game in hand. Yes, it's against Manchester City, but on the other hand, Manchester City are currently a shambolic collection of frauds, chancers and wasters. (And, er, League Cup winners.) So that could go either way.
All round, it's a tricky one to assess. If the title race is still alive then Spurs on the last day could be a battering; on the other hand, there are four very winnable home games (five if you count City) before then, so even if Tottenham are chasing something, it might not even be relevant. They could already be home safe. So ...
Because that suspicious, dangerous looking island at the end of the journey could be nothing more complicated than a safe haven, somewhere for weary sailors to rest and recuperate, the hard work done. Or it could be a giant whale/turtle/fish-thing that's only been pretending to be an island so it can drag them down into the ocean and devour them.
(Not sure that really works, to be honest, even if Dele Alli does look a bit like a turtle. Secretly, we've only included this because we quite like the idea that the tiny island of hair on the top of Steve McClaren's forehead might also be a whale, albeit a tiny one, and that at some point this season it's just going to shudder into life, then slip back into his skull, never to be seen again.)
20. Aston Villa, 16 pts, -29 GD
Manchester City (A), Tottenham (H), Swansea City (A), Chelsea (H), Bournemouth (H), Manchester United (A), Southampton (H), Watford (A), Newcastle United (H), Arsenal (A)
Not winning a single one of those, are they?
The caladrius was a pure white bird that lived in royal residences in Roman times. Its excrement cured cataracts, though that's not important right now. It also had the power to predict life and death; if an ill person could be cured, then the caladrius would take the sickness into its body and fly away, restoring the patient's health and giving any passing Christians an exceptionally convenient metaphor.
If, on the other hand, the patient was doomed, then the caladrius would simply refuse to meet their eye. Which is kind of rude in any circumstances, let alone these, but it at least solves the mystery of exactly what Remi Garde is looking at as he stands on the touchline, eyes brimming with tears, his football team dissolving in front of him. He's not gazing into space, or wondering for the thousandth time exactly why he took this job. He's trying to catch the eye of a pure white bird. He just wants a glance. A flicker. A sign of hope, a quick flash from a beaded eye. Something.
He's getting nothing.