Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Arsenal reduced to scrapping for fourth after Swansea setback
When former Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas uttered the immortal words “negative spiral” after Arsenal were defeated in the north London derby last season, they went on a 10-game unbeaten run that secured a top-four finish and continued Champions League involvement – much to the embarrassment of the Portuguese.
A year on, though, and with Arsene Wenger's men trudging from one disaster to another, that remark now seems rather more apt.
Knocked out of Europe's premier club competition by Bayern Munich (for the second year running) and with only two wins in their last seven Premier League matches, the Gunners' season is spinning and wobbling towards calamity – with a 2-2 draw against Swansea on Tuesday night the latest setback.
Briefly, Lukas Podolski's dizzying cameo off the bench – in which he scored the equaliser and appeared to set-up the winner – looked as though it had earned Arsenal a much-needed, though not entirely convincing, remedy to their six-goal drubbing against Chelsea at the weekend.
It was a false dawn, though, and one which made Mathieu Flamini's own goal, and the comedy of defensive errors and penalty-box pinball that preceded it, all the more galling. Rarely are the narrow margins in football so starkly highlighted.
The winning mentality and battling qualities that had been so evident this season – and which have been so unusually prominent compared to recent years – evaporated in the dying moments of the match; just when Arsenal needed to hold firm and seal a perfect response to their Stamford Bridge surrender, they caved in once more.
In truth, it could even have been worse. For all the Gunners' huffing and puffing they rarely threatened Michel Vorm. The hosts played 226 passes in the final third, but that produced just four shots on target, while, save for a mad minute, Ashley Williams looked to be the basis of an impenetrable defensive display.
And now, as is so often the case, Arsenal are back in a scrap merely to cling on to fourth place. At the weekend, the Premier League became a three-horse race as the Gunners' capitulation ended any realistic title hopes. Now they have created a three-horse race for that coveted fourth spot.
With back-to-back matches against Manchester City and Everton next up for Wenger's side, they have opened the door for the Toffees and Tottenham to nab Champions League qualification.
Incredibly, Arsenal, once favourites for the title, now no longer have any certainty of claiming fourth place. Everton may be six points adrift right now, but Roberto Martinez's men have a game in hand and host the Gunners at Goodison Park – and, more than that, Arsenal's dropping of points keeps handing them confidence.
“They have had major injuries, the squad is very reduced to the bare bones, and they have a real focus on the FA Cup as an opportunity to win a trophy,” said the Spanish boss.
“So you think that it is going to be a challenging ending to the season for them. From our point of view, in our position, you have to just try and get as many points as you can, and then you can look at the others.”
That growing injury list evidently caused Arsenal problems on Tuesday, with Laurent Koscielny's absence causing problems at the back and Thomas Vermaelen treading water in his absence, never entirely convincing. That once dependable defence has mustered just a single clean sheet in the last nine games in competitions.
The things Arsenal were doing so well at the start of the season have begun to deteriorate, with the defence dishevelled and confidence dented. Now they've handed Everton and Tottenham a glimmer of hope in the race for fourth place, and only a quick response can prevent another hugely underwhelming season for Wenger and his men.