By the time this weekend's Premier League matches have taken place a third of the season will have been completed. That does not mean it is possible to look forward with any certainty to how matters might stand at the end of the campaign, it is still far too early for that, although it is now plain to see that some pre-season forecasts have not turned out quite as envisaged.
Arsenal and Cardiff, for example. Two early-season success stories, despite all the doom and gloom put about in the summer. As late as the last week in August, especially after the opening game resulted in them collapsing to a 3-1 home defeat by Aston Villa, people were arguing that Arsène Wenger had lost the plot and were predicting Arsenal might finish outside the Champions League places. Turns out all you need is a record signing from Germany and all is well – to the extent of opening a four-point gap at the top of the table going into December – and while Mesut Özil has suddenly made Arsenal look like genuine contenders once again all the questions are now being asked of the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Cardiff have not quite routed their critics to that extent, although it must be conceded they look far more comfortable in the Premier League than even their supporters dared to predict. They entertain Arsenal on Saturday and while the table suggests that might be their biggest test to date, Malky Mackay's side can only be encouraged by holding Manchester United in their last match, having already accounted for Manchester City in their first home game of the season. With a derby win against Swansea also in the bag, Cardiff are clearly no mugs on their own patch, even if they did slip up against Spurs and Newcastle.
This is easy to say now but, as with Arsenal pre-Özil, it was not glaringly obvious when the season kicked off, particularly as Cardiff began as limply as Arsenal with a 2-0 defeat at West Ham. It turns out that result and performance might have flattered the home side rather than exposed the visitors but that's another story. To return to the difficulties of predicting a successful season in the Premier League for promoted sides who have never been in the Premier League before, or even in the top flight for the previous half-century, the rule of thumb this unreliable Nostradamus uses is never to predict an instant return for all three promoted clubs but never to suggest either that more than one of them will survive.
There are occasions when this formula is completely wide of the mark – Bolton, Blackburn and Fulham not only all stayed up following promotion in 2001, the three of them hung around for a decade afterwards – but generally it is realistic to assume only one newcomer to the Premier League will still be in the same company the following season.
To cut to the chase, reader, I went for Hull. Good defensive manager in Steve Bruce, with experience at a few Premier League clubs, Hull had a couple of seasons in the top flight not long ago, were stable enough to survive relegation and climb back and so on. Even now, the table just about bears out the theory, Hull are the highest placed of the three promoted clubs, although they lead Cardiff by only a single point and the Welsh side would actually be above them had they held out for a draw against Spurs instead of conceding Paulinho's late winner in the 90th minute. Margins are always incredibly fine in the lower half of the table but the basic deal for the Bluebirds at the moment, even if they should lose to Arsenal on Saturday, is that averaging a point a game gives you a chance, as long as you can keep it up all season.
There is always a chance, for a start, that teams below you might not be able to keep up even that modest pace. Crystal Palace and Sunderland already look in danger of falling too far behind and although Martin Jol appears to believe there are at least three teams in the league worse than Fulham, the available evidence suggests that Cardiff are not among them.
Interestingly, Fulham could achieve 13 points from 13 games with a win on Saturday, but so could West Ham, their opponents. In possibly the first relegation derby of the season, there is considerable pressure on both sides not to lose, yet a draw would leave both sets of fans frustrated.
Something else that gives Cardiff more than a fighting chance is their passionate support and the frenzied atmosphere whipped up at their new stadium. How influential terrace backing can be is notoriously difficult to quantify, yet many commentators noted that it worked in Cardiff's favour in coming back against United on Sunday and some even suggested it would help them pick up points throughout the season. This is with an unpopular owner as well, don't forget, not to mention the even more unpopular change of club colours, yet sometimes such perceived injustices can help bring supporters together to unite around a common cause.
Clearly this is not an exact science, having an unpopular owner rarely seems to inspire Newcastle to any great heights, and simply the fact of having a marvellously raucous, old-fashioned atmosphere at games has never put any actual trophies on the sideboard at Everton or Stoke.
Right at the start of the season, however, when Manchester City were the illustrious visitors, it was being suggested in all seriousness by players and manager that the intimidating atmosphere generated by crowds of, ahem, 28,000, could have a part to play – and, unlikely as it appeared, it seems to be coming about. Cardiff have grit in the team matched by gusto in the stands and no matter how small the number that is a combination that can work.
Manchester United regularly play in front of crowds of 75,000, although it is debatable whether that translates into the same amount of voluble support that a third of the number produce in Cardiff. Arsenal do not have the most demonstrative home support either but Wenger's side managed to win in front of 66,000 at the famously daunting home of Borussia Dortmund this month, so surely they are not going to be fazed by less then half the number of singing Welshmen?
You never quite know. The only thing it is reasonably safe to suppose in a season in which Spurs and Chelsea have already complained about the passivity of their own fans and Manchester United have attempted to introduce a singing section to promote terrace involvement, is that relegation rivals such as Fulham, West Ham and Norwich will be looking at the Cardiff atmosphere with envy.
If survival comes down to fine margins, they could all do with some backing like that. Or as Delia Smith once famously took to the pitch to say: "Come on. Let's be 'aving you." One would imagine there is not the remotest chance of Vincent Tan ever picking up a microphone and doing the same thing, and one shudders to imagine the reception he would get if he did. But Tan is lucky. It won't be necessary.