By Andrew Leci
As Robert Burns wrote in 1785, “The best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often awry.” I’ve translated from the English - for simplicity of understanding, and for those who can’t read with a Scottish accent – but you get the gist.
I had intended to focus on the fight for the top four in today’s piece, especially after Manchester City’s win at Old Trafford on Monday night significantly decreased the likelihood that the defending champions would be hunted down for the runners-up spot.
It looks very much as though three London clubs, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will be vying for the remaining two UEFA Champions League places, with only a handful of games remaining. All three of them were due to be in action in the upcoming round of fixtures, but they’re not.
Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for Chelsea (perhaps), the club finds itself in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, and will do battle with Manchester City this weekend for a place in the final.
Chelsea and Spurs were scheduled for a Barclays Premier League clash at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, a game that has had to be postponed, and it very much leaves the way clear for Arsenal to take control of a place in the top four. It’s a situation that only a few weeks ago, looked highly unlikely.
Here’s the context: Arsenal trail Chelsea and Spurs by two points, and face Norwich City at The Emirates on Saturday. Before Chelsea and Spurs are in league action again, the Gunners host Everton in midweek.
What this all adds up to is a wonderful opportunity for Arsenal to grab the initiative. If they can bag six points from the next two games, they’ll be four points clear of both Chelsea and Tottenham, before either of those two sees league action again.
It may not prove to be a decisive gap, but it will be a significant one, with Chelsea distracted by their cup exploits, and Tottenham Hotspur beginning to show signs of what appears to be a customary late season malaise.
In the previous campaign, Spurs were 10 points clear of Arsenal at the end of February, but still allowed themselves to be overhauled, as Harry Redknapp, arguably, took his eye off the ball when linked with the job as England manager, while the team suffered from what can only be termed a characteristic fear of success.
Arsenal got the job done when it mattered the most, and that mentality has in so many ways, typified the Gunners under Arsene Wenger. During his tenure, Arsenal have yet to finish outside the top four.
Defeat against Blackburn Rovers (remember them?) in the FA Cup back in mid-February, was followed hard upon by a mauling in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich, and it looked for all the world as though the game was up. Wenger was under an unprecedented level of pressure, with many calling for his head, and confidence within the team looked to be at a season low.
Since then however, Arsenal have won six league games out of seven, and, as one pundit said at the weekend, “don’t look like losing another before the end of the season.”
Goals are coming from unlikely sources – Gervinho and Rosicky have been scoring in recent weeks – and, at the risk of mixing a sporting metaphor – the team is getting the rub of the green. Despite being reduced to 10 men against West Bromwich Albion last time out, and under the cosh, Arsenal managed to hold on to their lead and bag all three points courtesy of some last ditch defending and a fair amount of profligacy from the Baggies.
The momentum is very much with Arsenal, and despite ‘momentum’ being ephemeral (by definition), it’s difficult to see them not making the most of it. The club has ‘been there, done that’ and has become accustomed to a place in the top 4 when the season’s reckonings are taken.
There are still some who will lament an eighth season without silverware for the club, and those who disagree fundamentally about the importance of Champions League football versus a trophy cabinet that is only opened for the purposes of dusting.
Arsene Wenger will aver that you can only do what you can when you can, and for Arsenal – unlike a distracted Chelsea and an injury-ravaged and apparently lacking in self-belief Spurs – a top-four finish is in the crosshairs, and coming into increasingly sharper focus.
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