So, it’s a pretty important day today. Arsenal’s season comes down to these last two games and the equation is pretty simple – win both games and qualify automatically for the Champions League, fail to win both and we don’t qualify, or at least the likelihood is we’d face an anxious wait and it wouldn’t be in our hands.
It’s a time for cool heads and grim determination. Norwich City have had a good season and gotten some great results against top teams, and they will be a challenge today but this will have to be a challenge that we rise to. On too many occasions this season, our team has fallen foul of complacency, underestimating teams that we are expected to beat, and we just can’t afford that today.
The situation in terms of Champions League qualification is that we sit one point ahead of Tottenham and Newcastle. Chelsea are almost completely out of the reckoning following their defeat to Newcastle in midweek, and indeed a victory for us today would confirm our first finish above Chelsea in the league for eight years. On paper our fixture is the easiest compared to Newcastle and Spurs’ games this weekend. They don’t play until tomorrow, with our game being the only Premier League fixture of the day which is a bit bizarre.
What we simply must to is apply the pressure to the other teams in a big way. We all know that third place is the grail here, fourth carries the risk factor with it not only because of the Champions League qualifying round in August but also because if Chelsea were to win the Champions League Final then they will replace the team that finishes fourth in the competition. Newcastle have a hugely difficult game against a Manchester City side on the verge of winning the title (excuse me whilst I throw up a bit), whilst Spurs travel to Aston Villa in a game that I quite honestly expect them to win. Villa are having a dire time of things at the moment, and I don’t see that they’re able to get anything from a focussed Tottenham.
Not that it matters, provided we can win our last two games. There really is no room for error here, we must win these games. Everything else is a side issue at the moment. Robin Van Persie’s contract, soon to be the subject of intense speculation just doesn’t matter today. Who might come or go in the summer is irrelevant. In fact if it’s nothing to do with the result of today’s game then really it’s something we shouldn’t be worrying about just at the moment.
In terms of the team news there’s not much to say, things are pretty much as they were for the Stoke game minus the availability of Abou Diaby which comes as a little of a surprise. I do wonder in the manager might be more inclined to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rather than Gervinho today, as the latter has struggled for form since the African Cup of Nations, as have a lot of players who took part in that tournament (so obviously it fills me with rapture that it is being held again next year). There’s the usual choice for the manager between Gibbs and Santos at left back, but I quite like the deployment of Santos further up the pitch that we’ve seen in recent weeks when he’s come on as a sub, we get rather the best of both worlds with Gibbs at the back and Santos with the license to go forward as much as he wants.
It’s a game which for all it’s importance doesn’t bare too much more close scrutiny. We know what to expect from Norwich, in our away game against them we had a really tough afternoon. They’re not only hard to beat but they can play a bit as well and I think we’ll be challenged all over the pitch today. Make no mistake, these last two games are going to be hard for an Arsenal squad feeling the effects of so many important players having played so many games this year.
Before I sign off, I was saying earlier that nothing matters apart from our last two results for the rest of the season but there is one big exception. It is of course Pat Rice’s final home game with the club today. I don’t want to say too much because I have it in mind to do a much larger feature on the man, possibly after the West Brom game but for now let’s simply say this: Arsenal without Pat Rice is borderline unimaginable to me. If you consider Arsenal’s “modern” era to have begun with the 1971 double as I do, Pat Rice has been there as a player or a coach for every single major success. The word legend is used far too easily these days, and I’m not going to use it here not because Pat doesn’t deserve it, but because it seems a poor and inadequate description of his contribution to our football club. Who might take over from him is a discussion for the future, for now let’s focus on a richly deserved send-off for a man as synonymous with Arsenal Football Club as it is possible to be.
Still, before he goes, there’s still a lot of work to be done by him and everyone else. Come on you Gooners!