Why their next four games determine Arsenal's season
Background photo: Zakarie Faibis, CC BY-SA 4.0
The race for the top four and Champions League qualification grows feistier as the Premier League season draws to an end. Arsenal leapfrogged Manchester United into fourth place on the weekend and kept that spot in midweek when they crushed Bournemouth at the Emirates. The clash with the Cherries precedes the first of four consecutive matches that should go a long way towards determining the Gunners’ fate.
Unai Emery’s defence needed a boost after conceding in every match since January 26, They finally kept a clean sheet against Southampton. It’s often said a goalkeeper can be judged by his defenders but Bernd Leno proved his worth against the Saints. A bit of momentum sets Arsenal up well to consolidate its Champions League bonafides over the coming stretch.
They might even think about catching Tottenham in third if they can steal a win at Wembley in the North London Derby tomorrow. Arsenal defeated Spurs in the reverse fixture last year this is a tough one for the Gunners. Arsenal have not won an away match against a top-six side since 2015.
The Europa League Round of 16 clashes against Hatem ben Arfa and Stade Rennais take place over the next two Thursdays. Domestic competition is too heated to give up on an alternate route to the Champions League. The Gunners must take the Ligue 1 outfit seriously.
That said, Unai Emery faces heavy temptation to rotate his squad. Manchester United invade the Emirates between the two legs of the tie. When the Round of 16 concludes, Arsenal will have played five matches in 16 days, counting the victory over Bournemouth. Emery can go for it, however. The Gunners match against Wolves is postponed so that Nuno Espirito Santo’s side can continue their FA Cup run. They’ll have a two-week break to recharge after this run.
Other factors work in Arsenal’s favour at the moment.
Manchester United’s squad faces an injury crisis. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is relying on Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in attack. He used both sparingly after taking the reins in December. Lukaku at least is gaining a measure of trust. The big Belgian scored two in a midweek victory over Crystal Palace.
While Arsenal contend with Rennes, undermanned United seek a miracle in the second leg of their Champions League tie with Paris Saint-Germain. They’re down two goals and a handful of stars. The Gunners can expect their rivals to be drained when they arrive at the Emirates.
Chelsea’s fixture list isn’t so onerous. Two matches with Dinamo Kyiv in the Europa League are manageable although the travel is a concern. Fulham, all but relegated, lie ahead but the one tough game is next midweek’s tilt with Tottenham. Normally, you’d say the Blues aren’t going anywhere but the Kepa fiasco at the League Cup final highlights the discipline and chemistry issues at the club. Maurizio Sarri hasn’t been able to gain momentum thanks to the continual disruptions.
The bottom line? If Arsenal take care of business in their next four matches, they’ll be poised nicely for the final run-in.