There is no denying that Arsenal’s response to the 4-0 San Siro embarrassment has been first-rate. They swept the floor with Tottenham in similar fashion to Manchester City earlier this season, and to follow it up with the incredibly uplifting victory at Anfield is really beyond all expectations.
The Gunners now begin a vital part of their season. To all intents and purposes, the Champions League dream is dead in the water, but was it ever alive anyway? Arsenal’s folding against Milan reflects the side’s tendency to crumble under the spotlight.The bottom line is Arsenal are not brave enough to win the Champions League and if it wasn’t Milan, it would only have been Barcelona, Madrid, Munich. Perhaps if Arsenal had made it further in the competition, their probable exit from the competition would have hit them harder a-la post-Birmingham 2011.
Whether this fleeting suggestion crystallises into bold prediction remains to be seen but that wretched night in Milan may prove the saviour of Arsenal’s season. In the blistering 19 days that has flown by since, Arsenal have gone from seeming hopeless in their quest for fourth to looking good to battle Tottenham for third.
Saturday’s win over Liverpool ends the Reds’ push for Champions League football, leaving them ten points adrift of Arsenal. If the Gunners beat Newcastle in their next home game, the Magpies’ will be equally stranded, nine points behind. This month Chelsea face Manchester City and Tottenham in the same week, not to mention that they’ve just sacked their manager and have two potential sources of doom hanging over them with both Napoli and Birmingham to play.
Chelsea’s other Premier League fixtures this month are Stoke (h) and Villa (a) and of the four games mentioned, I predict they will get a minimum of two points, a maximum of seven (I predict five). Compare this to Arsenal’s next four: Newcastle (h), Everton (a), Aston Villa (h) and QPR (a) . I have them to take a minimum six points and a maximum of twelve (I predict nine). All that speculative mathematics aside for a second, the bottom line is that a successful domestic month for Arsenal, and they could give themselves a real opportunity going into both sides’ clash at the Emirates on April 21.
Which brings us to Tottenham who really do have a great run in. Chelsea are the only side in the current top eight that Redknapp’s men will face and Spurs have taken 23 points from a possible 30 against these sides this season. So they look good for third. But the evidence of uncertainty at White Hart Lane is there for all to see.
Surely, the inevitability of Redknapp’s exit will continue to effect the players negatively. Spurs have been great this season and deserve the acclaim of finishing third, but in just one week, Arsenal have clawed back six of ten points, so it is by no means a sealed deal. To be within striking distance of a team that has been so consistently impressive is an achievement in itself given Arsenal’s disastrous start.
What is imperative is that the Gunners keep their dignity and do not allow themselves to be humiliated as has so often been the case. Exit from the Champions League is all but confirmed but the game can still be used as a positive. If Arsenal can beat Milan, they will take great momentum into a crucial set of fixtures. It is likely that Ibrahimovic will again terrorise Arsenal’s defence after a 14-minute hat-trick at the weekend against Palermo but Arsenal have to show the sort of character that has got them through the last two big games.
All too often the Gunners have been crushed as unrealistic expectations have crumbled before their eyes. If (when) Arsenal are knocked out of the Champions League, the whole club will not only be geared in the direction of finishing fourth, they will be in a great place to achieve that aim.
A good March and Arsenal could have real breathing space, something I think even the most ardent Wenger-hater would accept as positioning the club well to push on in the summer. Things have come to a head for the Frenchman this season. At times, he has looked out of touch and the end of the road really has been in sight, but for me, I feel all supporters would accept fourth place as long as that was backed up by significant transfer activity, the sort of deals that would allow Arsenal to challenge for titles once again.
By Chris Smith