It’s the end of the season–but it isn’t–given that we’ll be playing in the FA Cup final next Saturday. We cannot look ahead, however, and Arsenal must focus on our home match vs Everton–which we must win, while perhaps keeping an eye on Anfield–where we hope that Middlesbrough can get a result at Liverpool. If all that goes our way, another season of Champions League football would be the reward. There’s also a scenario where Manchester City could fall out of the top-4 positions, but we would have to win while they lose at Watford–all in a fashion where a five goal differential is reversed. At least we have something to play for and stranger things have happened.
In fact, we only have to look back to this round of matches last season. Spurs were set to finally finish ahead of Arsenal, only needing a result at already relegated Newcastle. That one ended in a 5-1 drubbing and Arsenal sneaked in for a 2nd place finish in the league with a home win over Aston Villa.
Finishing ahead of our arch rivals put the tiniest bit of gloss on a disappointing season where all the big clubs faltered and the title was there for the taking, but for plucky little Leicester City, of course. The regret was somewhat mitigated by the fact that we looked fairly well positioned for this season, though we all knew the big money clubs would throw stacks at their own troubles.
Chelsea did just that and seem reasonably worthy champions under Antonio Conte. We’ll deal with them next week when we preview our attempt at preventing them from winning a domestic double at Wembley. Spurs now have finished ahead of us, winning that honor in emphatic style with a victory in the final North London derby held at White Hart Lane. Despite finishing a distant third among the London clubs, there are a couple of bright spots. Manchester United will finish below us in the league–despite hiring the most despicable character in all of football management, Jose Mourinho, AND spending massive amounts of money–but they still have a shot at Champions League football if they can beat Ajax in the Europa Cup final. With a win over Everton we would finish on 75 points; already we’ve beaten last season’s total of 71.
Everton, on 61 points, will finish 7th whether they win, lose or draw. In other words, they have nothing to play for. Don’t try to tell that to Ronald Koeman, a manager who seems to enjoy getting one over on our own Arsene Wenger. In 2007, managing PSV Eindhoven, Koeman knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League in the round of 16. At Southampton, his teams took several points from Arsenal that might well have served us. The four we shipped to them last season put a real dent in any challenge we might have made in closing down Leicester. Finally, Everton’s 2-1 win in this season’s reverse fixture back in December ended Arsenal’s long unbeaten run and popped a sizable hole in our confidence ahead of further disappointing results.
Additionally, Everton are replete with quality players who might be trying to put themselves in the shop window for a summer move to a bigger club or richer contract. Most notably, center forward Romelu Lukaku looks primed for a big money move. The towering Belgian has 24 league goals–just one ahead of our own Alexis Sanchez–and looked strong for the league’s Golden Boot award until Harry Kane scored four in midweek. Still, a goal or two wouldn’t hurt his highlight reel. We shouldn’t put all our defensive focus on Lukaku, however, as his countryman Kevin Mirallas is a very talented attacker as well. Enner Valencia can score goals too and 18 year old Tom Davies has impressed with his work-rate and ability to pop up in dangerous spots. Leyton Baines and Ross Barkley are always good at shots from distance, sending in crosses and otherwise playing in their teammates. Their corner kicks and set pieces could be a route towards goal given veterans like Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams to aim at.
Wenger will try to counter Everton’s threat while also priming his players for the cup final next Saturday. This match comes at the end of a difficult run of five games in two weeks so tired legs might need to be rested and a couple of players could be given run-outs to see if they can do a job at Wembley. Still, with the top-4 places on the line and nearly a full week of rest before the cup final, I expect Wenger to play his strongest available team. Injury news suggests that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still out, Laurent Koscielny could play and that Aaron Ramsey has recovered from the injury that saw him subbed out in the 2-nil win Tuesday night vs Sunderland. I think the latter two will both start and that we’ll see just one change (Koscielny for Gibbs) from the group that went in the last one.
Subs: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Coquelin, Elneny, Walcott, Welbeck
Of course, some will argue that greater rotation is needed and that maybe some of those who have been in training ought to get a shot too. Players like Mathieu Debuchy, Lucas Perez and Per Mertesacker get mooted (or at least copied and pasted) into some observers’ preferred line-ups. Should Wenger mix things up at this late date?
No matter who plays it’s a must-win game. We need to give ourselves a shot at a top-4 place while hoping Boro can somehow eke out a result at Anfield. Moreover, failing to beat Everton would undermine our confidence ahead of the cup final and tinge what’s sure to be an already uneasy lap of honor after another disappointing league season and loud calls for Wenger to end his long reign at the club. All of that comes after the match is over. While we play we must stay in the moment. Instead of focusing on the difficulties this past season presented, Arsenal should look to build on their recent run of good results: seven wins from eight matches since switching to a 3-4-3 formation. For the manager and his players, it’s one last chance to hone that style of play before the cup final. Difficult as it might be, we need to neither look forward towards Wembley nor backwards at the season as a whole. We must also shut out any news of scorelines from other stadia around the league that might excite or mute our focus on the football being played. Concentrating on the task at hand–finishing off the league season with a victory over Everton, the only thing Arsenal will have any power over come Sunday at 3 pm–is all that really matters.
Go on then…