Arsenal's 5 Biggest Games Between Now and the End of the Year
The last few matches have revealed—to a large extent—the true complexion of the current Arsenal team.
The midfield is functioning to some degree thanks to the return of Jack Wilshere, although he did not have a solid a match this week against Manchester United. His influence was better last week in the match against QPR.
Here, he tended to overrun the ball when he embarked on his driving runs. This was what caused the second yellow card that sent him off in the match, because having overrun the ball, he lunged into the challenge in a quest to reach the ball before his opponent.
The team's forward line is blunt. But this is effect flows from the midfield too.
Alex Song provided creativity for the team from the back. Getty Images.
The team lacks the creativity that Alex Song provided at the back, an effort that yielded the most goal assists for the team last season. Creativity is also lacking at the front; this Robin van Persie provided the team last season.
Thus, although Santi Cazorla is recreating the effect of Tomas Rosicky's presence in the team, the catalytic element that Song gave the team—which yielded a lot of goals—and Robin van Persie's above-the-average performances—which resulted in the team having an edge over most of its opponents last season—are sorely missing in this team.
Consequently, I must say it again: The sale of Song was a huge mistake. None in the current team has stepped up to fill up this void. This was a nonsensical sale, and both Wenger and the team may yet regret it if the team does not put its acts together very soon.
The following is the huge task before the team, a task it must face and overcome by the end of the year. Failure to tackle this task successfully will mean a disastrous season.
At this point, though, all hope is not lost. Arsenal can still take the season by the scruff of its neck. To do so, here are five matches I consider very important to Arsenal's survival this season, matches the team must get results from.
I welcome readers' views on this.
Robin van Persie gave Arsenal an edge over many opponents. Getty Images.
Tuesday, November 6, UEFA Champions League: Schalke 04, Away
This match is important because it has a strong bearing on Arsenal's fortunes in this year's Champions League campaign. The minimum Arsenal need to do here is secure a draw away at the Stadion Gelsenkirchen.
Call this a Herculean task, but notwithstanding, having dug themselves into difficulty by losing at home a fortnight ago to the German Bundesliga side, Arsenal must get a draw or a victory in this match if they want to retain a realistic chance of not only qualifying for the next round of the competition, but also of topping the group, a possibility still in grasp.
Topping the group is, of course, important because it gives Arsenal a better chance of advancing far in the competition, as this will eliminate early encounter with the top dogs at the knock-out stage of the competition, teams like Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and so on.
(I do say this with full understanding that some of the so-called top dogs are themselves struggling in the competition.)
A draw on Tuesday will ensure that Schalke's advantage remains at a one-point difference. This will put Arsenal on seven points and Schalke on eight. Defeat here would mean Schalke will be four points ahead, a fact that would practically snuff out any of Arsenal's chances of topping Group B.
Meanwhile, victory at home for Olympiacos over Montpellier will mean that Arsenal will have the former to contend and compete with for the second qualifying spot in the group.
Victory for Montpellier or a draw for both teams will ease the pressure, but it's of no use speculating about this. If Arsenal want to justify their presence in Europe, they must manage and control their own fate.
It is important, then, that they go all out on Tuesday to win the match against Schalke. This will not only avenge their home defeat, it'd put control of group B back into their hands.
Failing this, they must—as I've said—secure a draw to retain their chances of still overtaking Schalke in the remaining two qualifying matches .
There is another reason why this match is important: Defeat will acerbate Arsenal's current situation, which is poised on the brink of becoming dire. A draw will arrest the team's fast-fading confidence, while victory will restore it.
This match will be—as it were—a test of Arsenal's manhood. Let's see how they handle or acquit themselves.
It is was mission impossible for Arsenal during their first encounter with Schalke at the Emirates at fortnight ago. Getty Images.
Saturday, November 17, Barclays Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur, Home
The little comfort Arsenal can draw from their current situation is the fact that it isn't just they who spurned the opportunity to advance themselves on the Premiership table this week.
Tottenham Hotspur, currently ahead of Arsenal on 17 points, would have advanced themselves further on the table with a home victory over Wigan Athletic by going fourth. Instead, they conspired to lose.
Even Manchester United's own victory over Arsenal was down to the fact that Arsenal were as toothless as an infant, so much so that Sir Alex Ferguson was unimpressed by his own team's victory.
Had Arsenal been anything but tepid and frigid, there's no reason to think that Manchester United would have won this match. The two teams were so bad, but United were a little better, which is why they emerged as victors in this sorry encounter.
On 15 points, Arsenal are in sixth place on the table, two points behind both of Everton and Spurs, the teams in fourth and fifth places respectively.
This weekend, Arsenal host Fulham, who are on 15 points themselves and only behind Arsenal because of a goal difference of minus two. Spurs will be away at Manchester City, a match that will likely end in a draw or a loss for them.
Everton will host Sunderland. On current form, we would expect Everton to win this match. So they're likely to remain in fourth place this week on 20 points.
In the light of this, it is important that Arsenal win their match at home to Fulham. They won't afford a draw or a defeat. Victory for Arsenal and a draw or defeat for Spurs at City will put Arsenal in fifth place on the table on 18 points.
This is so because, although a draw for Spurs will but them on 18 points, same with Arsenal, Arsenal have a superior goal difference of plus seven to Spurs' plus three.
If Everton draw with Sunderland or lose to them, Arsenal could vault into fourth place this week. What is important is that Arsenal take care of business at home.
A fortnight from now Arsenal will face Spurs at home. If events unravel as I have speculated above, this match will be critical to Arsenal. It will decide which of the two north London clubs will be ahead this season.
So this won't just be a match pitting the two traditional rivals together, it'd be a match to decide supremacy.
What we've seen of Arsenal so far this season is a team that is not good enough, but that does not mean the team couldn't scrape its way through the season, and scrape its way through the season is what we, the fans, would like to see the team do.
The next two weeks, then, are critical to Arsenal's fate this season: draw at Schalke on Tuesday; win at home to Fulham on Saturday; win at home to Spurs the week after, and a bleak season could suddenly acquire some promise.
The title possibility would still just be out of reach; this, though, would be steps in the right direction.
Arsenal dismantled Spurs in their second encounter last season. Getty Images.
Wednesday, November 28, Barclays Premier League: Everton, Away
Between this next match, which I consider important, Arsenal will host Montpellier at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday November 21. Three days later, they'd travel to Aston Villa for that week's Premier League encounter.
Aston Villa are not exactly blazing their way through the league either. So, if this Arsenal team had any teeth, this is a place it could get a result. In fact, a top four finish is incumbent on Arsenal getting victories at venues such as this.
Then again, he will be a fool who assumes that Arsenal will indeed take all three points at Aston Villa.
What we've seen so far is a team that cannot maintain possession in the final third to save its own life; so it won't be a thing of surprise when the day arrives and the sorry team is kicked in the behind by Villa.
As to the Montpellier match, if Arsenal want to go anything near the knock-out stage of the Champions League, this is a match they have to win.
Returning to the Premier League, if Arsenal are able to come out of the next two weeks in one piece, the Everton match away is one at which Arsenal must get a result. A result here would put them in good stead toward securing their traditional top-four finish on the table.
Everton aren't pushovers this season; so it'd be interesting to see how Arsenal fare here.
Van Persie, who later decided to bail out of Arsenal, scored one of his wonder goals against Everton last season. Getty Images.
Tuesday, December 4, UEFA Champions League: Olympiacos, Away
I consider this match important because it might decide which of the two teams, Arsenal or Schalke, tops Group B at the end of qualifying round of matches.
Here is what I envision could happen between now and then: Arsenal secure a draw at Schalke on Tuesday. The two teams go into the next round of matches on seven and eight points, respectively.
In the next round, both teams win their matches against Montpellier and Olympiacos, putting Arsenal on 10 points and Schalke on 11.
Then in the next round, that is this match under consideration, Arsenal secure an away win at Olympiacos—a fact that can only occur if Arsene Wenger fields his best possible first XI—and Schalke lose or draw at Montpellier. In this event, Arsenal would end up on 13 points and Schalke on either 11 or 12.
I consider Montpellier stronger than Olympiacos. If this is so, Montpellier are likely to more than hold their own at their own stadium against Schalke on the final day of qualifying matches.
In any case, Arsenal have to take care of their own business, beginning with getting a result at Schalke this week, getting another one a fortnight from Tuesday and then making sure to finish this up by beating Olympiacos away.
Anything short of this means Arsenal will face early elimination from the Champions League this year yet again.
Arsenal got a victory against Olympiacos in their first Champions League encounter at the Emirates this season. Getty Images.
Saturday, December 29, Barclays Premier League: Newcastle United, Home
Here are Arsenal's December fixtures.
Between the Olympiacos match, which I've said Arsenal must win away, Arsenal will play West Bromwich Albion at home, Reading and Wigan Athletic away and West Ham United and New Castle United at home in the Premier League.
Of these matches, I consider the Newcastle match the most challenging.
It is true, of course, that West Brom are doing well this season, but were we to judge Newcastle on the basis of their last season form, we'd have to consider them a tougher challenge than West Brom.
Wigan are unpredictable.
Their surge at the tail end of last season meant they gave problems to the top teams, but this is a team that Arsenal trashed four-nil away last season. But again, we must remember that Arsenal's team last season could score goals.
Still, I'd expect Arsenal to get a result at Wigan, same as at Reading. For West Ham United, the fact that Arsenal will play them at home gives some advantage to the Gunners.
This leaves the Newcastle match, which Arsenal should win to retain their chance of getting something positive out of this season.
Herculean task ahead. Getty Images.
When I look at Arsenal's Premier League fixtures between now and the end of the year, I see Fulham at home, Spurs at home, Villa away, Everton away, Swansea at home, West Brom at home, Reading away, Wigan away, West Ham at home and Newcastle at home: Ten teams, which equals to 30 points, were Arsenal to get a 100 percent result.
Were Arsenal to win six of the home matches that'll be 18 points. This added to the current points would put Arsenal on 33 points, three points short of the 36 Arsenal had scored at the midway point of last season. Then, Arsenal stats were thusly: P20 W11 D3 L6 GF36 GA28 GD8 P36.
If Arsenal win all of the six home matches between now and the end of the year, they'd need to draw the rest of the matches to secure a better record than last season's. That'll be four points more than the 18 above, and this will take the team's tally to 37.
This, though, will be an average performance. Arsenal need to win at least eight of the coming 10 matches. This would take the point tally to 39 and to 41 if the team manages to draw the remaining two.
Thirty-nine points would be a fair achievement for the team. This is the goal the team should aim for.
For the Champions League, the team must get a result at Schalke on Tuesday and then follow this up by winning the remaining two matches. Anything short of this will leave the team in a difficult bind.
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