The next ten days are crucial to Arsenal's hopes of Champions League qualification
It has become something of a groundhog day for Arsenal and their supporters. Since finishing second to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005, other than a Champions League final in 2006, the Gunners’ end-of-season focus has been merely to ensure a Top Four finish.
That is not saying that Arsene Wenger does not have eyes for another title—winning the league again would give the manager and his oft-criticised players some respite, which he surely is more aware of than anyone.
However, in the current situation, the club’s prospects of a championship in the long-term are almost entirely dependent on chasing a less glamorous short-term option.
The blessing that was missing last year is that come May, fourth place will be a qualification place regardless of other matters—last season only Tottenham Hotspur’s collapse in the latter stages saved Arsenal from the Eastern Bloc/Iberian tour that is the Europa League.
Still, Chelsea’s domestic struggles coupled with their astonishing European triumph meant that last season it was a fight between Arsenal and fierce rivals Tottenham for the sole Champions League spot. This year, Chelsea are much improved domestically, and with three teams battling for the places, Arsenal can no longer rely on their counterparts stuttering. One opponent capitulating is luck; two would be miraculous.
The only concrete detail is that Arsenal will have to do all the work themselves this time around. Last year’s comeback was impressive, but Tottenham came unstuck in the wake of the Harry Redknapp being linked with England. There will be no such distractions to affect Andre Villas Boas’ men as they push for the Champions League place they deserve.
There is encouragement, namely in the form that Arsenal have displayed as of recent, especially when compared to their early-season performances. Naturally, there have been the characteristic glitches, but a solid victory over Reading at the weekend will have instilled confidence.
The silver lining of being eliminated from Europe and the League and FA cups is obvious. Arsenal are building some domestic momentum, Gervinho scored and got two assists the other day (stranger things have happened) and more than that, in fifth place, they are only two points behind Chelsea with a game in hand over third-placed Tottenham. As Arsenal fans were saying this time last year, "it’s back on."
The next three games are make-or-break. With Tottenham only playing one league game in the period that Arsenal play their next three, if Tottenham lose, by April 16th Arsenal could potentially be five points beyond their rivals, albeit one game ahead. This would put extra pressure on Spurs, who are already strained by their Europa League schedule, which includes having to take a 2-2 scoreline to Basel in what will be a testing match, and have also lost Gareth Bale to injury.
Add that both teams meet Everton during this stretch—who are mounting a Euro-spot challenge of their own—and the likelihood of one, if not both, dropping points is strong. All Wenger can do is pick the right team on the day and hope that the bad luck is Tottenham’s.
Chelsea have the same Europa League issue as Spurs, which only strengthens Arsenal’s chances. However, the Arsenal players must not see this as a relatively easy coast to the finish line—this is the attitude that lets in complacency and bad results.
Which ultimately comes down to Wenger’s ability to keep them sharp and motivated. I have been critical of the manager this season, mainly over whether he is perhaps outdated or even arrogant, but no one can deny that he has the experience and tactical nous to secure wins against West Brom, Norwich and Everton.
They are tricky fixtures, the surprise maybe coming from Norwich who defeated the Gunners 1-0 in October, but that was back in Arsenal’s—nowadays almost traditional—early-season slump and their form is much improved.
Could Jack Wilshere’s absence be their downfall? It’s possible, but if the loss of one key player has that detrimental an effect on his teammates, they shouldn’t even be thinking about Europe. All that matters is that Arsenal take their chance and qualify for next year, when Wilshere will be available.
It’s interesting how things stand. Wilshere, a professed Gooner-for-life, is unlikely to leave should Arsenal fail to qualify this season. But what about the year after, or the year after that?
This is where my earlier point about long-term success being dependent on the short-term becomes relevant.
Wenger has a number of players on his radar, and rightly so. His current crop are hardly footballing heavyweights who will conquer United and City, let alone Barca and Real Madrid, so summer spending is vital. The catch being that should Arsenal fail to secure a Champions League spot, not only might they fail to reel in their transfer targets, but their current names might begin to look elsewhere for a place in Europe’s premier competition.
And despite Wilshere’s obvious love for the club, his head may one day be turned.
Of course, there is always the chance that even with a Champions League place and £60 million to bring in players, my oft-espoused theory that Wenger cannot pick stars anymore will have the same effect it has had over the past few seasons. If that happens, Arsenal could find themselves in this precarious position indefinitely. At least until Arsene regains his ability to unearth talent or calls it a day.
For now, though, the plan is simple. Win their next three games, hope that Chelsea drop points and after that keep going for the finish, be it third or fourth. Because in the long-term it won’t be about third or fourth, but whether Arsenal are ranked among the elite or the has-beens.