Arsenal in pole position for Champions League qualification
Arsenal opinion: Gunners have the advantage in the race for a top four finish
Go back to February and the cynics of the footballing world were circling the Emirates Stadium with anticipation and glee in belief that this season would see the final collapse of Arsenal.
Languishing in sixth place behind Everton and rivals Tottenham, a 1-0 defeat to Blackburn Rovers saw any hope of realistic silverware rescind for another year and was duly followed by a 3-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich that had almost certainly knocked them out of the Champions League.
Arsene Wenger had been portrayed in many circles as a dead man walking and the hope of a top-four spot, something that has become a formality in Wenger’s era, was seen as a distant reality.
Fast forward two months, however, and the picture is beginning to look a little rosier for Arsenal. Although they still remain outside the hallowed top four positions with Chelsea two points ahead and Tottenham four [albeit having played a game more], it is Arsenal and not their London rivals who can be seen as the favourites for a top four spot.
A 2-0 away win in Munich, although not enough to progress, has seemingly sparked their season back into life as the Gunners have gone on to win five out of their last six domestically that has seen them become one of the form teams within England.
Furthermore, the gruelling fixture list that awaits their rivals can only dent their bid for Champions League football next season. Whilst Arsenal have their eight remaining domestic fixtures to focus on, Chelsea’s victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup and their upcoming Europa League quarter-final against Rubin Kazan means that Rafa Benitez’s eyes may well be on other goals in his final weeks.
And, whilst Andre Villas-Boas has recently prioritised fourth-place over the Europa League, the effect that a major European trophy in his first full season at Tottenham will have on banishing those west London demons will not have eluded the Portuguese manager.
The consequence that these consecutive matches will have on the players is there to see, with Tottenham’s shock home defeat to Fulham and Chelsea’s loss at Southampton underlining the struggles that both clubs will have to deal with if they are to keep producing wins domestically as well as abroad.
The worries that squad rotation bring will not be of concern to Wenger as we enter the final straight of the season, however. Indeed, the Frenchmen will be safe in the knowledge that the fixture list is smiling on the Gunners. For all the weight that the old adage that there are no easy games in football has, there can be no doubt that Chelsea and Tottenham’s remaining fixtures are of a significantly harder degree than those of Arsenal’s.
Whilst the Gunners only have one top-four team in Manchester United to play, Chelsea have three in the shape of Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, with Spurs facing Manchester City on top of their west London rivals.
For Wenger, therefore, every cloud that another season without silverware brings has a silver lining, and the congested fixture list that awaits Chelsea and Tottenham over the coming weeks must be a source of good heart for the Frenchman.
Whilst another trophy-less season will be of great pain to their manager and fans alike, a 16th consecutive season of Champions League football is looking like an increasingly probable outcome.
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