The road to the Champions League is full of potholes
When you are 3-0 down at West Ham on a Sunday afternoon, the Champions League feels a long way away. However, the Gunners fought back superbly to come away with a draw. That fighting spirit is needed if Arsenal are to play in the 2021/22 Champions League.
It’s been a tough season, but as the final fixture of March was played, Arsenal still have a lot to fight for. There are two routes to the promised land of the Champions League. Both roads have plenty of potholes but let’s try to be confident about the future.
First of all, let us take a look at the Premier League. The astonishing 3-3 draw at West Ham United on Sunday, 21 March left the Gunners in ninth place. There are nine league games left to play and the same number of points to make up on fourth-placed Chelsea.
It’s not an easy task, though, for the Gunners. That’s reflected by the odds of 33/1 to finish in the top four currently available at STS. Those odds will fluctuate, and a few good wins after the international break could see them fall dramatically.
This is the road that has the most potholes; in fact, the council budget to repair it is very large indeed. A glance at the remaining fixture list gives a little bit of hope. There are five home league games left to play. Liverpool, Fulham, Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Brighton & Hove Albion are the visitors.
That fixture list can also be described as the two teams from Merseyside and three of the current bottom five. With Liverpool and Everton both prone to inconsistency, a fair few home points can be earned, so long as finishing improves.
On their travels, Arsenal still have to go to Sheffield United, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Crystal Palace. Needless to say, if the Gunners want to get into the top four, they have to go to Stamford Bridge and come away with three points. The other games see them play the other two teams in the bottom five and inconsistent, little-to-play-for Crystal Palace.
Chelsea also have to travel to Manchester City and West Ham United, plus a home game against Leicester City. A few bad results there and a storming finish by Arsenal, and who knows what might happen?
A strong finish to the Premier League is possible for Arsenal. Even if they can’t quite make it into the Champions League places, European qualification is still on the cards. Manchester City beating Tottenham in the Carabao Cup final is bound to put a smile on the faces of all Arsenal fans. It would also free up a league qualification place for the Europa Conference League. With a top-four team possibly winning the FA Cup, that would also boost Arsenal’s European qualification places.
It’s Champions League football that is the target, and winning this season’s Europa League is a way to achieve that. This road also has a few potholes, but it looks as if a bit of work has been done on it with Arsenal through to the Europa League quarter-finals.
Arsenal has twice come close to winning the Europa League in their absence from Europe’s top club competition. A semi-final in 2018 was followed by a defeat by Chelsea in the 2019 final. Remember that match? A London derby in the final, and it was played in Azerbaijan!
It’s not been too hard a route to the last eight this season. All six group games were won against Molde, Rapid Vienna and Dundalk. That set up a last 32 clash with Benfica with both legs being played on neutral territory. Not the easiest of games, and a few nervous moments in the second leg when 3-2 down on aggregate with 23 minutes left. The Gunners fought hard, though, and a late Aubameyang goal secured their place in the last 16.
Olympiakos were their next opponents, and despite losing to the Greeks at home for the second season in a row, Arsenal won 3-2 on aggregate to reach the quarter-finals where they take on Sparta Prague.
That’s a far better draw than, say, Manchester United, Ajax or Roma, and at least Tottenham are out. The first leg is at home, so time to buckle down and get a good first-leg lead. Sparta have already beaten Leicester City and Glasgow Rangers, so won’t be scared of another trip to these shores.
Arsenal are the second favourites behind Manchester United to win the Europa League. Perhaps that Champions League place may still be achieved.
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