It is hard to place the exact moment when “bottle” became such an overused part of football’s lingua franca but nowadays it is hard to get through a weekend without several cases. You do not have to delve deep to find someone suggesting Chelsea bottled it at Goodison Park or Liverpool had the bottle to push themselves to a handy three points at Fulham.
A recent example that was particularly jarring occurred when the bottle question was lobbed at Marcus Rashford just as he stood at the eye of the swirling storm of tension that was a last-gasp penalty, away from home at Paris Saint-Germain, to decide who would prevail in the Champions League knockouts. And so the commentator waded in: “HAS HE GOT THE BOTTLE?”
Hang on a second. First of all, anyone in any situation who steps up to take a crunch penalty is already showing a highly respectable level of courage. Second, if the inference is that missing such an opportunity makes someone a bottler, something is very wrong. Distilling an entire match, or competition, into whether one player deals with pressure in one action does not make much sense in a team sport.
The bottle question has become so pervasive it filters down from the top. Recently a talented 10-year-old on a three-month trial at a Premier League academy spent the entire experience trying to cope with a relentless test of his character. Could he withstand the fact that the rest of his temporary teammates – already established in the academy – either ignored him or picked on him, joking collectively at his expense from day one with no intervention from the coaches? Three months were not spent trying to show what he could do with a ball but instead having his confidence shredded. Without showing the required bottle, he was left to pick up the pieces.
So here we are, heading into the international break, the last pause for breath before club football resumes for the sharp end of the season. All the players and managers know that this is the last chance to take stock, to grab a second to try to clear their heads before the madness comes. When the Premier League restarts over the final weekend of March it is a time for finding peak form and holding nerves. Bottles (sigh) will start flying about everywhere.
While the pressure is on in a very specialised way for Manchester City and Liverpool with the title at stake, there is a different kind of tension that grips the four teams below them in the knowledge that not everyone out of Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelseawill make it over the Champions League line they are all so desperate to cross.
It is a treacherous period – in effect balancing two eggs on wooden spoons as they try to sprint onwards as fast as they can without tumbling. Balancing the target of a European trophy in one hand, the chase for the top-four Premier League position in the other, it is going to be a hard fall for those who do not make it.
Just to add to the stress, because of the number of English teams still involved in Europe, there is a chance that a top-four finish will not even deliver a Champions League place. Admittedly quite a lot of permutations have to happen here but there are a maximum of five places available for English clubs. If a Premier League team win the Champions League and finish outside the top four, and Arsenal or Chelsea win the Europa League and finish outside the top four, then only the top three will join them.
With only four points separating the teams occupying third to sixth it could be anybody’s game. Tottenham are in pole position, despite an untimely dip in league form garnering only one point from a possible 12. They also have some extraordinarily loaded fixtures ahead, with the emotional return home now pencilled in for the Crystal Palace game on Wednesday 3 April and then a mini-series against Manchester City which will test them to the limit.
Arsenal are just a point behind in fourth having found some rhythm and confidence lately. A warm weather break to Dubai is scheduled for those not on international duty and, while they are the only ones who do not face a fellow member of the top six in their run-in, they do have some potential googlies at clubs just outside, such as Wolves, Watford and Everton, knowing away games – of which they have five – are not their forte.
Then there is Manchester United, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was quick to remind his players when they slunk out of the FA Cup with a rare below-par display at Wolves that April and May is the time he expects them to rise.
Chelsea find themselves in sixth spot and chasing. César Azpilicueta outlined Chelsea’s frustration after slipping up at Everton on Sunday. “Every time you don’t get three points you put yourself in a more difficult position,” he lamented before a rallying call: “We are going to fight because we cannot miss Champions League qualification.” This break perhaps comes at a useful time for a squad who need to regroup – time to buckle up for the nerve-racking final push.