The league title has gone to Leicester City so now it’s about top four positions and next year’s Champions League.
Given how Pep Guardiola’s, er, Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City went out with a whimper in this year’s competition this past Wednesday in Madrid, we have to wonder if anybody really cares.
Gentleman, start your engines… Please. There is still some football to be played!!
Pellegrini has two matches remaining and, after Saturday’s results, some points he needs to win to keep the other Manchester team below him and what’s left of his team. United play at West Ham in a make up match in midweek, so if they get a result there, and if City drop points in this one, it could all come down to Pellegrini’s final match, at Swansea City. Imagine the situation if Pep Guardiola arrives without Champions League football for his new team!
Arsenal’s task is more straightforward. Tottenham are three points ahead of Arsenal with two matches to play (Southampton at home, Newcastle away). Given that Spurs dropped points from winning positions to give Leicester the early party, Arsenal have to believe that two victories could make for a very late St. Totteringham’s day, although that could be moot by kickoff time if Spurs can win vs Mauricio Pochettino’s former club. Even if it isn’t possible, Arsenal need two points to clinch another season of CL football so getting a result in this one is important. It would be lovely to not need a result on the final day vs already relegated Aston Villa and remain in a position to either nip in over Spurs for second or clinch at least a 3rd place finish. For those who prefer to imagine the worst, Arsenal could still finish outside the top four, but only if they fail to get those two points and ManU win at West Ham and vs Bournemouth on the final day.
As difficult as it is trying to do the maths (I defer to the English usage today…) it’s probably easier than looking in the mirror and examining the ghosts of what has become of both teams this season.
Manchester City, in the first days of September, were undefeated and had not been scored upon. Having finalized the transfers of Kevin DeBruyne for 55 million pounds after spending almost that much (49M) on Raheem Sterling, they appeared nailed-on PL champions given the early stumbles of defending champions, Chelsea and other rivals, including Arsenal. For many observers, it was not a question of winning the league, but what records they might break and what other trophies they would add in (what might become) an historical season.
Indeed, it has been an historical season, but one which will be remembered for the little team that could, Leicester City. The Northern oilers soon joined the London gas men in opening the door (and fitting some glass slippers) for Leicester’s Cinderella story.
Arsenal would have hoped to have stepped through that door, and, by the turn of the calendar year. we were right there at the top of the table having cemented our position with a very pleasant 2-1 home victory over City at the start of the festive period. In that one, early goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud put us in control, but a late strike from Yaya Toure made for a nervy finish. Since the turn of the year all three players have netted only two league goals apiece.
The lack of goals from Ollie and Theo was a big reason our title challenge dissipated but Man City were also unable to mount a charge. Although they did get a trophy by winning the League Cup, the extra matches probably did not help their efforts in the other competitions. They went out of the FA Cup with a rotated squad and a 5-1 drubbing at Chelsea while home league losses to West Ham, Liverpool, Leicester, Spurs and Manchester United indicated a frailty in the team that would haunt them even as the progressed in the Champions League. They were able to get past Dinamo Kiev and Paris St. Germain in that tournament but couldn’t score in either leg of the semi-finals against Pellegrini’s former club, Real Madrid and hardly fashioned any chances.
The 2nd leg was just this past Wednesday so Pellegrini may be tempted to rotate in some better rested players while he must also cope with injuries to David Silva and Vincent Kompany. With the depth of highly paid professionals at his disposal, City can still turn in a commanding performance if properly motivated. The players will know that Pep will be watching as he evaluates his bloated squad for next season. As such, whoever plays will be keen to impress although extra incentive may be on tap for former Arsenal players including fullbacks Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. Those two, although nearing the ends of their playing careers, should have secure positions in the squad; Samir Nasri, finishing up another season of injuries and limited playing time, will likely be more desperate.
He may also want to impress his former manager given that Arsenal might be one of only a handful of teams with the funds to take on his pricey contract. As difficult as Pellegrini’s position has been since the Guardiola announcement, Wenger has similar troubles. Since he will not go, mollifying supporters will likely require a significant cull of his squad over the summer. Wenger’s starting eleven in this one will likely be drawn up with both an eye to getting a result and tipping his hand regarding how the team will shape up next season.
The manager has played the same starters in the previous three matches but may want to re-jig into a more defensive shape against a City team, which on their day, can be rampant. In addition to Sergio Aguero, teenager Kelechi Iheanacho has been scoring goals while Wilfried Bony will also want to show that he can still play at this level.
For Arsenal, finally, after five months out, Santi Cazorla is available. Will Wenger play him alongside Francis Coquelin as he did in this fixture last season? That match turned out to be a real revival for our club with the Coq-zola pairing at the rear of midfield making us a more solid looking outfit. Unfortunately, injuries to both players (plus the goals drying up) have brought us to this moment. My hunch is that Coquelin will get the nod alongside January purchase Mohamed Elneny, but that Cazorla will only get off his bench seat if we need goals in the 2nd half. Here’s the eleven I think Wenger will choose.
Subs: Ospina, Chambers,Wilshere, Cazorla, Ramsey, Walcott, Giroud
I’ve been calling for Welbeck to start up top (but I’ve been wrong for three in a row), and, despite his winner a week ago vs Norwich City, there’s a notion that, given his long time out due to injury, he cannot give us a strong performance over the full ninety minutes. As such, Olivier Giroud, buoyed perhaps by the assist he provided for Welbeck when he came on vs Norwich City, could start again instead. Or might Wenger think that speed on the break plus a bit of pressing the ball at the back (especially given Kompany’s injury) and Theo Walcott up top might be the answer? What about suggestions that there’s a strain between Alexis Sanchez and Wenger? The Chilean marched off the pitch and left the dressing room early in the Norwich match. Could Aaron Ramsey start on the right to try and help Hector Bellerin?
Who knows and your guess is as good as mine. Our bench has been very forward (and midfield) heavy in recent matches and Wenger might want some extra defensive options on the bench to help preserve a scoreline. Fit players who are not asked to dress for the match may have to fret about their spot in the squad for next season.
Those sorts signals have to be secondary to trying to get a result. Still, if neither team can get on top early, I wonder if this one might be played out as a “gentleman’s draw.” A point each would leave CL football in the hand of both teams going into the final weekend. Given the ambitions of both clubs and the fact that both will likely be working several new players into their first teams, worries about Champions League qualifiers, I think, are misplaced. Some believe that finishing 4th and having to play those matches in August make recruiting more difficult. I disagree. Bringing in players has more to do with the salaries both clubs can offer and the extra matches, I believe, actually give fringe players a couple of extra opportunities to impress and managers an opportunity to observe them under a bit of pressure. Of course, others may analyze the situation differently, especially if they enjoy indulging in the worries fomented on the back pages and click-bait web sites.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Please share.
It’s not the title decider we may have hoped it would be when the fixture schedules came out, but there are still things to play for, notably a CL spot and a bit of good feeling heading into what is sure to be a tumultuous summer.
Go on then…