Arsenal may have left it late on in the season to start demonstrating the sort of form worthy of a top four finish, but following their dramatic late 3-1 victory against Norwich City over the weekend, few are now doubting the Gunners’ Champions League credentials.
Indeed, if timing is everything in football, then Arsene Wenger’s side are slowly becoming the league’s resident clock-watching experts.
In the same way many observers had already written the obituary for their season come early February during the last campaign, Arsenal have yet again made a mockery of those who all but consigned their top-four aspirations to the scrapheap a couple of months ago.
Three goals in the last five minutes against a Norwich City team who had looked to have struck a potentially mortal blow to the Gunners’ season told you everything you needed to know about this Arsenal team. Faultless? Not by any stretch of the imagination, but for all their troubles this season, the mentality of this side is of one that still believes it should be dining upon the riches of the Champions League table.
But while belief, or a lack of it, is a buzzword more commonly attributed to the faltering fortunes of their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday’s result served to do a lot more than simply edge Arsenal closer to yet another finish above the gentlemen up the road in white; it helped exorcise some of their own demons, too.
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Because last season, it wasn’t just Spurs who managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory and although it was Wenger’s men who eventually triumphed in the hunt for guaranteed Champions League football, they themselves endured a potentially fatal wobble that could have been avoided.
The relevance of Arsenal’s late-season woes last season might not seem particularly poignant upon face-value, but when you look at just who they dropped points to last term and who they’ve still got left to play, you gain an understanding as to just how important it was that Wenger’s men took all three points against the Canaries on Saturday. Any less than a win and history might have looked like developing a very nasty habit of repeating himself.
This time last term the Gunners headed into the last eight games of the season on a similar wave of rejuvenation. The hard work, so to speak, had apparently already been done, with a certain gap above their north London rivals already shredded away and a run in of eight games that consisted mostly of teams in the bottom half of the table. Three of which – as is the case this time around – came against Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Wigan Athletic.
Although in spite of the momentum that had swung in the Gunners’ favour, far from propelling them on towards a hazard-free route to a top-four finish, those three fixtures did untold damage to Arsenal’s league run-in. Against all three strugglers, Wenger’s team took a measly single point from a possible nine, ensuring that their seasons hopes hung on the last day of the season. With margins tighter than ever this time around, they’d do well to avoid a repeat of last season’s cliffhanger climax to the league campaign.
And that’s why the importance of Saturday’s 3-1 victory against Norwich simply cannot be underplayed. All three of Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs will drop points in the remaining handful of games, but with fixtures against the likes of Everton and Manchester United still to play, Wenger’s men cannot afford a repeat of the slip-ups the club endured against the same three sides this time last season.
If there was a feeling that the Gunners had perhaps strolled into the games against Wigan, Norwich and QPR with a sense of complacency last term, then Michael Turner’s 56th minute headed effort served as just the smelling salts Arsenal perhaps needed to prevent a repeat of last season’s lackadaisical showings during the run-in.
Whereas Arsenal wilted in the dying moments after a similar late-comeback against Norwich City last term, this team looked like one in no mood to surrender as Lukas Podolski hammered home the exclamation mark to add to their riveting revival.
But while Saturday’s showing resembled the sort of spirit, will and guile that arguably neither Chelsea nor Tottenham have shown so far in the race for European qualification, three points against Chris Hughton’s team will count for nothing unless they’re backed up with victories against QPR and Wigan.
The same notion could quite easily apply to the other four remaining league fixtures, but with the games against Harry Redknapp’s doomed R’s and Roberto Martinez’s inconsistent Latics side the most winnable of their last six games, there can be simply no slips up this time around.
In spite of the mess they made in attaining them, three points against Norwich City will hardly seem like reinventing the wheel for Arsenal supporters. But given the proverbial pig’s ear that they made of the same fixture under very similar circumstances indeed last season, the importance of that victory cannot be quantified as they push on towards a top-four finish.
And if Wenger’s men can find redemption against two other sides that very nearly cost them it all last season, Champions League qualification may be all but a guarantee.
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