The elusive dream: Arsenal latest to falter in stuttering race for Champions League qualification

Having won seven in a row when nobody was looking, the third-place spotlight fell upon the Gunners - and they have promptly imploded just like those who came before
By George Ankers

Arsenal were supposed to be over their slump. Third place should have been confirmed by now, given their lead.

Mind you, that’s what everyone said about Tottenham not long ago. Would somebody please stand up and grab hold of the Champions League places?

All season long, third and fourth spots in the Premier League have been there for the taking. Chelsea and Newcastle were there for much of the early season. Then Spurs took over. Then, having extricated themselves from the cavernous hole into which they had dug themselves, Arsenal finally seemed to have cemented their position.

But now, one defeat and three draws later, they’ve done their best to blow it too.

One can only begin to imagine the frustration of Gunners fans watching this topsy-turvy campaign unfold. Even considering early-season injuries, the calamitous form shown by Arsene Wenger’s men to fall as low as 15th at one stage was embarrassing.

Arsenal's lead let slip
Apr 16
Arsenal 1-2 Wigan
Apr 21
Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea
Apr 28
Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal
May 5
Arsenal 3-3 Norwich City
But the real disappointment must stem from the fact that they had turned it around. With the season already starting to be written off by some, Arsenal fought right back into top-four contention. It seemed a show of mental strength, but in light of what we have seen since, it looks more like an allergy to attention.

Over February and March, the north Londoners won seven league matches in a row, but nobody was paying much attention - Chelsea were stumbling, freefalling, then firing Andre Villas-Boas whilst Harry Redknapp had his head turned by England and marched Tottenham off the edge of a statistical cliff.

Before kicking off at home to lowly Wigan on April 16, Arsenal were five points and goal difference clear of their nearest rivals in third place with five games to go. Come Sunday evening, there is every chance that they will be lagging in fifth.

Their run-in has hardly been daunting. Being beaten by perhaps Wigan’s best ever Premier League performance (at the time, at least) was a forgiveable result, but a lacklustre stalemate against a Chelsea side already seeming to write off the league in favour of potential cup glory was less so.

That missed opportunity should have prompted a serious response against Stoke City. The cliche of the Britannia Stadium being a hard place to go is exaggerated – the Potters are in the bottom half of the home form table – and the cutting edge to prove as much was lacking.

But to spend so much of the match against Norwich City, who had looked in their last two outings the epitome of the team ‘on the beach’ with nothing left to play for, on the back foot, and then let slip the advantage when they had eventually clawed it back? A serious problem.

These are all games that a team like Arsenal should see out, and they haven’t done so when it matters.

Indeed, they are lucky not to have been punished even further. Thanks in part to the gentle rest they were given at the Emirates in between semi-finals, Chelsea have continued their glory-or-bust pursuit of Champions League qualification through victory in Munich.
1/6 Arsenal are now 1/6 with bet365 to finish in the top four this season.

Tottenham have picked up slightly now that the England confusion is done with but still found time to lose to Norwich and QPR during Arsenal’s slump. Even Newcastle had their terrifying form interrupted by a thrashing at the hands of Wigan.

And it is through these others, not themselves, that the Gunners retain hope. Maybe someone else will bottle it just as badly.

It is getting to the stage where, Newcastle’s overachievers aside, whoever gets into the top four will do so sheepishly, knowing that the ‘we are Champions League’ crown is a flattering one.

There is a serious lack of gumption at the top of the Premier League tree. Whoever can instil it first – be it Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle or Chelsea - looks likely to find themselves shooting into an open goal.

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