Chelsea’s qualification for the Champions League final has provided clarity to a situation that was long suspected to have existed; Arsenal must finish third this season otherwise there is an uncomfortable wait for the final whistle in Munich. You would hope that the match will be over long before that with Bayern highly motivated to lift the trophy in front of their own fans. That this might cause more pressure than they can bear is a real danger, stifling the Germans even more than the Chelsea midfield and defence will try to do.
For Arsenal, it is a tricky situation. Barring a massive turn around in their goal difference, Newcastle need to accumulate more points over their remaining four fixtures. It is by no means certain that this will be the case with only their final opponents Everton, having nothing to play for. That is not to say Arsenal’s matches are no less difficult. Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion have proved obdurate opponents on their own grounds in recent years with the only victories over each coming two seasons ago. The ground is generally a tricky one for the bigger clubs, not just Arsenal. Each season sees the top six leave with a general record of on average a win or two, a defeat and three or four draws between them. The defeat has already happened this season so Arsenal have the chance to keep up with history this weekend. A point would not generally be such a bad result yet now the context is seen only with the results of others.
What is clear is that third is the only guarantee of entering the Champions League next season; the squad and manager have spoken frequently that this is their target, how their destiny is in their own hands so now is the time to prove it. Nobody said it would be easy and true to Arsenal traditions, they are going about achieving their targets the hard way.
Winning the Champions League is something of a holy grail for the manager and any chance of success will be tempered by his three match ban. That he has chosen not to appeal the harshness of the penalty is interesting: an exasperation with Uefa that any appeal is likely to fail or equally as likely, an admission of guilt? I wonder if those who opine that all players should have their suspensions wiped for finals will join me in noting that managers should not be banned as it generally serves little or no purpose.
Has for example, a team ever lost because the manager was not on the bench? I cannot think of one. Or even that Arsène will stop picking on defenceless referees, an endangered species only trying to do their honest nights work. I’m not holding out any hope of either scenario being taken up.
There is a familiar feeling about the end of this season, not just in the inconsistencies of recent performances. Next year will be better. It will, Wojciech Szczesny says so,
When you play for this Club you want to win trophies. This Club deserves trophies and we didn’t get any this year so it’s always disappointing. I think the quality is there. We all know it – we have the quality to fight for trophies in Europe and this country. It’s just consistency that has been a bit of a problem for us this year. But the team’s getting more experienced and hopefully we’ve got the experience to win trophies next year.
I think if you look over the last couple of months we’re probably one of the best teams in the Premier League. So we’ve got three games to go and we need to win all three and we’ll finish third.
I am not quite sure what else the Pole is supposed to say. Arguing that the squad needs to be improved further before any title challenge can be made is not going to endear himself to manager or team-mate alike. I am not going to indulge in fantasy football manager here, my views have not changed over the years: every single squad needs changes each summer, every squad can be improved. To believe otherwise is delusional and ignores the realities of football.
The manager will not want a repeat of last summer. A valid point was raised earlier this week in response to the piece on Robin van Persie: Arsenal may hold onto him even if he signals he is not going to renew his contract as it makes it more straightforward to sign a replacement with the Dutchman already confirmed as leaving the club. At that level, the players want to know there is a relative cast-iron guarantee of first XI football not that they are competing with the best player in the world (at the moment). Fragile egos and all that.
A big improvement in the consistency that Szczesny speaks of, would come through fitness being retained through the season. How Arsène would love Jack Wilshere to be fit now, easing the absence of Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott. A squad player such as Denilson would be a decent addition. The Brazilian would be a good fit into the side now in these circumstances. This season’s fluctuating form has not just been down to injuries, the mishandled transfer window was a lesson that the club has learned from hopefully. However, the injuries do not help sustain form or improve it where needed. With a plateau coming in the top six teams – many of a similar level whilst Newcastle showing teams can break into the European placings – it is vital that Arsenal stay ahead of their competitors whilst bridging the gap to the top two.
Elsewhere, Nicklas Bendtner does not feel that he wants to prolong his stay in the North East nor is he overly keen on staying at Arsenal. Potentially a good centre forward, the Dane is proving outstanding at burning his bridges. Carlos Vela is more circumspect about his future, preferring to stay in Spain with Real Betis interested, as well as current club Real Sociedad, but if he has to come back to England, he will. Very reluctantly, it has to be said. Meanwhile Jan Vertonghen‘s flabber has been well and truly gasted by the lack of reciprocal Arsenal love and realises that he might not be leaving for anywhere soon at all. So much so that he is backtracking faster than most of us can move forwards. Perhaps he ought to phone young Bendtner and offer a tip or two?