Why the familiar scourge of injuries threatens to derail the Gunners’ push for Champions League qualification

With the likes of Walcott, Diaby and Wilshere all on the treatment table, injuries could ruin Arsenal’s late charge to be at European football’s top table, Mrunal Nakashe examines
Despite a spirited display at the Allianz Arena, Arsenal fell just short of what would have been a miraculous comeback against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. It was also a result that that condemned the Gunners to an eighth successive season without silverware.

As such, Arsene Wenger’s men now face a fight to salvage what has been yet another disappointing campaign, by qualifying for the competition by way of a top four finish in the league. It will be easier said than done though, as the North Londoners find themselves in a four-way battle for the last two Champions League spot.

As it stands, the Emirates Stadium-based outfit sit in fifth spot on 50 points from 29 games, five points behind third placed Chelsea and four behind arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur, but with a game in hand over Andre Villas-Boas’ side. As the tables illustrate, the Gunners have much the easier run-in through to the end of the season as compared to their London rivals. 

Targetting a Champions League spot

Rafael Benitez’s Blues have been erratic throughout the season, rather mysteriously unable to put together a consistent run of form at any point in the course of the campaign, a run that has seen the big-spenders unable to cement their position within the top four. Additionally, the West Londoners face some tricky fixtures up ahead, including trips to Southampton, Fulham, a resurgent Liverpool side, United and relegation threatened Aston Villa. Similarly home games against the likes of Spurs, Swansea and Everton will not be a walk in the park.

On the other hand, Villas-Boas' Spurs have suddenly hit the wall after being one of the most consistent sides in the league all season. With back-to-back defeats, Spurs are in danger of once again throwing away a commanding lead in the race for the Champions League spots, something that happened to them last year, when they suffered an inexplicable meltdown to surrender third spot and a 10-point advantage over Arsenal, in extraordinary circumstances.

Their last two defeats away to Liverpool and at home to Fulham are a sign that the White Hart Lane–based outfit are still unable to deal with the pressure of closing out the season. Moreover, their run-in hardly makes for comfortable reading. There are tricky away games against Swansea and Stoke City to come, while they also face a showdown with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as well as a difficult home clash with a wounded Manchester City.

Tottenham's historic tendency to buckle under the end-of season pressure and arguably, the most difficult run-in out of the three sides is sure to give the Portuguese quite a few sleepless nights, particularly if Spurs fail to arrest their recent slide quickly. It is also worth noting that both these sides still have Europa League commitments while the Blues are also still in the FA Cup.

Contrastingly, the Gunners’ upcoming fixtures should, on paper, enable them to put a string of wins together. Home games against Reading, Norwich and Wigan are a must win. While away dates against QPR and West Brom will not be a cakewalk, the two home games against Everton (which is their game in hand over Spurs) and the high-flying Red Devils are likely to shape their destiny. They also a face a potentially crucial trip up to the northeast to take on a mercurial Newcastle side on the final day of the season.

While Wenger will be confident in his side’s ability to pull through, he would know of their inconsistencies as well. With that said, the last thing the Frenchman needs right now is bad news on the injury front.

Indeed, it seems the scourge of injuries, that has hung over the Emirates Stadium and has derailed the North Londoners’ push for silverware on countless occasions in the recent past, has struck again, as the experienced gaffer faces the prospect of being without three of his most important players in Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and the injury-ridden Abou Diaby.

Undoubtedly, the biggest loss will be that of Wilshere. The midfielder has been hampered by an ankle injury through a major part of the campaign and unfortunately, just as he was beginning to look as if he was back to somewhere near his best, it has come back to haunt him again at the most inopportune of times. The injury has meant that the playmaker has featured just 26 times in all competitions this season, with two goals and five assists to his credit. However, he now faces a losing battle to be fit before the end of the campaign.


Wilshere's absence is a blow

Wilshere’s importance to his team is well borne out by the fact that, in spite of his injury problems, he has often looked the best player on the pitch in a red and white shirt. The England international provides his side the spark and energy in midfield they so desperately require. His incisive passing and tenacious tackling have made him a lynchpin in both attack and defense. Moreover, the youngster has often displayed leadership qualities and maturity beyond his years, as well as the kind of spirit and commitment some of his team-mates have often been accused of lacking. Wilshere is the kind of special player who can unlock a tight game with a swing of his boot. These are all attributes his team will sorely miss, if as expected his season is over.

The other big injury concern is Walcott. The England winger picked up a groin problem on international duty and is set to be sidelined for the upcoming home clash with the Royals.

Following the departure of Robin Van Persie to United, the Englishman has inevitably had to take up more responsibility and has certainly risen to the challenge, contributing an impressive 18 goals and 15 assists in 37 appearances to date. Walcott has always possessed blistering pace to enable him to get in behind defenders, but in this campaign his composure in front of goal has been a particular feature of his play. As such, his manager will be hoping the pacey winger can return quickly from this untimely setback to help propel his side over the finish line.

However, the most curious and depressing case is that of French midfielder Diaby, who after suffering torn anterior cruciate ligaments is once again expected to be out for no less than 8-to-9 months.

Wenger must cut Diaby loose now

Wenger has stated openly that his fellow countryman is one of the first names on the team sheet for both club and country, when fit. But, the fact remains the combative enforcer has never been able to steer clear of the treatment table for long enough to have a substantive impact on the pitch. It is no surprise perhaps than that, the midfielder who was once likened to Patrick Vieira, has failed to live up to the mantle, accumulating just 177 appearances in nearly eight seasons with the Premier League giants.

When fit, Diaby lends balance to the Gunners’ midfield, whilst also providing a physical presence to break up opposition attacks. His absence has hit hardest this season following Alex Song’s departure to Barcelona and it is a gaping hole the current squad are simply ill-equipped to plug.

To his credit, Wenger has stuck by the ex-Auxerre man through all his trials and tribulations, in the hope that the talented strongman will one day put his injury-woes behind him and realize his true potential. However, this latest setback is sure to test the depths of his patience, especially given the growing chorus for a summer shake-up to the squad in order to end his side’s enduring trophy drought.

With the trio being sidelined the squad depth at Arsenal will be put to the test as the season heads towards a captivating finish. While Wenger will justifiably take some measure of comfort from the fixtures list, he must shuffle his pack wisely, if he is to secure a seat at European football’s top table once again.


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