Emirates Stadium, London — After the debacle at Stamford Bridge, Arsene Wenger and Arsenal needed a win at all costs. Instead, they finished the night with a costly draw. A promising season now threatens to dissolve into a customary fight for fourth place.
Will Arsenal finish in the top four?
After having their confidence shaken by their mauling at the hands of Jose Mourinho, this was never going to be a comfortable night for Arsenal. However, supporters arrived at the Emirates Stadium hoping for an emphatic response rather than more collateral damage.
In an ideal world, Wenger might have wanted to overhaul his lineup. Speculation had suggested that the likes of Wojciech Szczesny and Olivier Giroud could find their first-team places under threat. However, the reality of the situation is that injuries have severely weakened Wenger’s hand.
And it is clear that an injured player is sorely missed in the heart of Arsenal's engine room.
Despite being injured since Christmas, Aaron Ramsey has still completed the most tackles (56) in Arsenal's squad. pic.twitter.com/q1ZzvbVVGS— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 26, 2014
In the end, he made just two changes from the side battered at the Bridge, one of which was enforced.
In defence, the injured Laurent Koscielny was replaced by Thomas Vermaelen. Wenger’s other change saw Mathieu Flamini introduced at the expense of Lukas Podolski. That meant a reshuffle of the Arsenal midfield, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain moving from central midfield to the right wing. After his antics against Chelsea, Wenger probably wanted him as far away from his own goal as possible.
As at Chelsea, Arsenal got off to a dreadful start. After just 11 minutes, they found themselves a goal behind when Neil Taylor was allowed too much time to float a cross into the box. His delivery was met by the muscular form of Wilfried Bony, who powered a dominant header into the bottom corner.
At the weekend, the Chelsea defeat brought back painful memories of Arsenal’s troubles at the hands of Didier Drogba. On this occasion, they suffered at the hands of another powerful Ivorian striker.
Arsenal laboured to halftime without offering a significant threat to the Swansea goal. Michel Vorm did well to palm away one Santi Cazorla effort, but Arsenal’s attacking play consisted largely of aimless crosses and impotent set pieces.
The Gunners needed to make a change to add variety to their play. That all-important switch came in the 57th minute, when Lukas Podolski was introduced at the expense of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Podolski is not perfect, but he is certainly productive, and the German helped Arsenal turn the game around with two goals in a minute.
First, Kieran Gibbs darted to the byline and cut the ball into the penalty area. Podolski met the cutback with a calm side-footed finish for his eighth goal of the season.
His impact didn’t end there.
Seconds later, he sprinted toward the corner flag before flashing a teasing ball across the goal. Olivier Giroud had struggled to make inroads against the Swansea defence until then, but the out-of-sorts Frenchman simply couldn’t miss such a presentable opportunity. His neat shot beat Vorm and sent Arsenal into the lead.
It seemed as if Arsenal had ensured the turnaround they craved. Up until this point, the Gunners’ season had been characterised by their terrific response to setbacks. However, the scale of the Chelsea hammering appears to have taken its toll on Arsenal’s confidence. No sooner were they in the lead than Swansea began to grow again.
The eventual equaliser had a good deal of fortune about it. Swansea were awarded a somewhat generous free-kick by referee Lee Probert, from which Leon Britton found himself unmarked in the penalty area. Per Mertesacker extended a telescopic leg to make a last-ditch tackle, only for the ball to ricochet off Wojciech Szczesny and Mathieu Flamini before trickling into the net.
It was pure slapstick, but Arsenal fans struggled to see the funny side.
Arguably, it could have been worse. Probert blew his whistle for full-time with Swansea streaking away in search of a winner. The Swansea players were incensed; the Arsenal fans relieved.
However, that relief was soon replaced by disappointment. After the Chelsea game, most Gunners fans shelved their hopes of a title win. After this latest mishap, they fear a tussle for a top-four finish.
That is something Gunners boss Wenger is aware of. Per Sky Sports, the Frenchman said:
Winning the title isn't our biggest worry at the moment because we have to be realistic.
Man City look unstoppable and are favourites because they have two games in hand. We have not much room to come back into it.
We have to look behind us; of course, we also have to look in front of us, but as well behind us.
Everton won, so we have to focus and prepare well for the next game. It will be open until the end, we can still have surprises.
On the same evening, Everton won convincingly at Newcastle. They’re now just six points behind Arsenal, with a game in hand and a fixture between the two sides at Goodison Park to come.
Arsenal still have an FA Cup semifinal to come, but may find themselves preoccupied with chasing the more familiar prize of Champions League qualification.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report’s lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.