CAN ARSENAL CLINCH EVERY POINT LEFT AND AIM FOR A TOP 3 FINISH?
By Ashley Munson
The football season is rapidly drawing to a close and the race for the top four – and subsequently qualification to the Champions League – is well and truly on. Arsenal have climbed back into fourth place to sit one point behind their North London rivals Tottenham, thanks to a rare away win over Watford, courtesy of an early blunder from Ben Foster, who Aubameyang didn’t waste.
As the season has progressed analysis from pundits and fans has swung back and forth between Unai Emery doing a fantastic job and the side treading water from when Arsene Wenger was in charge. Regardless of what the league shows come 38 games, Emery has done a solid, if not spectacular, job.
The Gunners have maintained a playing style that is easy on the eye and have firepower that most teams in Europe wouldn’t say no to; the only thing that remains is the defensive fragility, which has been particularly exposed away from the Emirates. It’s an area where Arsenal have lacked for years. I know it, you know it, every fan knows it and Emery will know it too. Perhaps he’ll finally address it as well.
Spurs are chirping away in third place having moved into their shiny new home and yet it’s a realistic possibility they finish below Arsenal come May. The Gunners, regardless of the helping hands of Ben Foster and the elbows of Troy Deeney (not to mention his cojones), overcame a real banana skin at Vicarage Road.
If they can replicate the result in tough away fixtures at Wolves and Leicester, then the return of St Totteringham’s Day could well be upon us. The last day trip to Turf Moor looks somewhat more straight forward as they’re all but assured of safety and home ties against Crystal Palace and Brighton should be six points in the bag.
A lot will be made of the lacklustre nature of the performance but at this stage of the season it’s about getting the points and it is very much a game Arsenal would have dropped points in a year ago.
So, whilst there are some similarities between this season and Wenger’s later years, the fact is missing out on a top four place would be crushing – in other years it’s been a stretch to get there. It’s very much in the Gunners hands with the kindest fixture list – on paper – of the team’s challenging.
It’s not only in the league where Arsenal are competitive this season either and with Europa League expert Emery, who won three titles with Seville, marshalling things from the technical area it’s a genuine possibility they add that honour to their trophy cabinet.
They already hold a two-goal advantage over Napoli heading into the second leg and, barring a disastrous collapse in Naples on Thursday, they’ll find themselves in a semi-final fixture against a Spanish side. It will probably be Valencia, who defeated Villarreal 3-1 away from home to put them in control of the tie.
When you consider the season as a whole it really isn’t fair to dispute the job Emery has done and, if in a month, the Gunners fire blanks to crash out of the Europa League and end up fifth then they’ll build and go again next season. After a nearly year but deliver on either front – let alone both – and the expectation will be to push Manchester City and Liverpool in a three-horse title race.
Perhaps that’s getting a tad ahead of ourselves. After all, Arsenal often get accused of having a soft underbelly and – if you allow me to coin an old Sir Alex Ferguson phrase – it’s squeaky bum time. The Gunners need to prove they’ve got the guts for the scrap, but the talent is unquestionably there.
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