Mid-March onwards is almost ubiquitously described as ‘the business end of the season’ and for Arsenal, an entity accused of being more of a company than a football club in recent years, industry is certainly needed to keep the machine functioning.
One with a penchant for hyperbole could argue this is the most important run-in under Arsène Wenger, and said drama-queen would not actually be too far wide of the mark. There are no trophies up for grabs, despite the manager’s insistence that fourth place is tantamount to just that, but securing a place in the Champions League is arguably just as important for the Gunners.
The financial benefits are well documented, but it’s also an allure to the top players, which Arsenal will need to target in the summer transfer window. They can’t afford to lose any more key individuals either, having witnessed the departures of previous captains Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie in the last couple of years, and qualifying for the Champions League will be important in keeping prized assets such as Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere (admittedly, the latter two only recently signed contract extensions but loyalty is seemingly a thing of the past in football).
Also, ask any fan who travelled to Munich earlier in the month and they’ll tell you how much they enjoyed the trip. Playing European giants such as Bayern is still a privilege and the famous Champions League pre-match anthem still raises the hairs on the back of the neck. The Europa League is a fine competition but undoubtedly inferior to the premier club competition in football and potentially all of sport.
Alas, there is work to be done to get there yet again. Arsenal have nine games remaining and currently sit in 5th place; five points behind Chelsea and four behind North London rivals Tottenham with a game in hand. Their run in, on paper at least, looks fairly generous – there are more than enough opportunities to pick up points.
Whilst the cliché states there are no easy games, and travelling to Newcastle for example is by no means an inevitable three points, the only standout potential banana skin on the Gunners’ fixture list comes on April 29 when Champions-elect Manchester United travel to Emirates Stadium.
United will most likely have officially wrapped up the title by then and may not have as much motivation to beat the hosts as they normally would do. Arsenal will of course want to get one over on an old rival they haven’t beaten since 2011, and in particular, the aforementioned treacherous scum, Van Persie (no bias here, I promise).
With the likes of Norwich, Reading and QPR still to play, Arsenal have the opportunity to make up ground and must take advantage of any slip-ups from their London-based adversaries, which may well arise with Spurs and Chelsea both still in Europe, and thus facing the prospect of a congested fixture list.
Rafa Benitez’s side perhaps have the best first-choice line-up of the three but lack strength in depth, which may well prove to be the difference with an FA Cup replay against Manchester United to juggle as well.
Arsenal will need to make use of their fringe players, and, to use another nauseating cliché, treat every remaining game like a cup final. At this stage, there is no room for complacency. Failure to make the top four wouldn’t be a disaster as such, but it would be pretty close. Without Champions League football, Arsenal run the risk of suffering a Liverpool-esque fall from grace. Maybe these are Wenger’s nine most important games after all.