May 17, 2013
Two months ago things looked rather dreary. It was just a couple of weeks after a demoralizing loss at White Hart Lane, and Arsenal were five points removed from the top four with 10 games to go. Since the start of 2013, we had only picked up 14 points from a possible 27. If we had any hopes of extending our 15 year run in the Champions League, we had to stop hemorrhaging points and focus on one thing: winning.
So when we traveled to Munich on March 13th the expectation by many was that we would get battered by arguably the best side in Europe. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Allianz Arena. Although we couldn’t do quite enough to win the tie, Arsenal left Germany with a stunning 2-0 win.
And what followed? W-W-W-W-D-W-D-W-W. Twenty-three points out of a possible 27.
We earned the last three in a high-pressure game against a Wigan team that stood on the precipice of the drop zone. But we needed three points just as desperately as they did. So when Lukas Podolski nodded home Santi Cazorla's corner kick early in the first half, a huge sense of relief washed over the Arsenal faithful. The Gunners came out with guns blazing, took the early lead and signs were indeed positive. Thoughts of not only three points, but making up ground in goal differential abounded!
And then the crushing blow of Shaun Maloney's free kick just before the break. Agony.
Wigan came out for the second with confidence and for at least a few minutes it looked as though they would perform yet another Harry Houdini impression.
But the next eight minutes defined this Arsenal squad. Goals from Theo Walcott, Podolski and Aaron Ramsey – all assisted by man-of-the-match Cazorla – put an end to the Wigan threat, filled the team with confidence and enthralled Arsenal supporters around the world.
But for the manager, everything about the second half went back to his two-month-old mantra: Just perform and don’t worry about the other guy. "We became a bit edgy and nervous at the start of the second half. But in these types of games you need to keep your nerve and continue to play like there is nothing at stake basically."
Whether those were the words he said to the squad during the intermission, we don’t know. But Walcott said Wenger's half-time team talk inspired them to perform.
Kieran Gibbs described the feeling on the pitch. “We had to be patient. When we came in at half time we had to stay focused and [we knew] we still had 45 minutes to win the game. We took our chances and picked the right moments to get them on the counter-attack."
Theo later added a line that almost sounded like it could have been an Opta tweet. “It happens every year. We tend to finish very strong. I think it is just because the players want it so much."
For Wenger, it's a proud accomplishment. “We are in a position nobody expected us to be in. We have our destiny in our hands, our fate in our hands -- and that's what you fight for in the game."
Of course, it's still far from over. Or at least 90 minutes from being over. Arsenal travel to Newcastle on Sunday for the season's final matchday. While there are all kinds of possible permutations, the only thing the team is focused on is a win. Three points would seal fourth place. But it's no easy task.
On paper, Arsenal look like clear favorites. Consider Newcastle's place in the table or their recent 6-0 loss against Liverpool. Throw in our 7-3 win at Emirates in December and you could not be blamed for being giddy with optimism. But the team that we face on Sunday will be very different, and underestimating a side that includes players like Hatem Ben Arfam, Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse is extremely dangerous. And we don't need to be reminded of the 2011 game, do we?
For us, the team news is mixed. The bad news is that it's highly likely Mikel Arteta will miss the game through a calf injury he picked up in the waning minutes against Wigan. The Spaniard has been a vital cog in the late season run, but while Wenger recognizes it is a blow, he is confident someone else will step up. “For one game, we will find the resources to do without him if we have to. I'm convinced we can because he was out for a while during the season and I played all sorts of combinations."
The obvious choice to play in Arteta's place would be Jack Wilshere, but there could be an issue there. While he is available, we received news this week that he needs some minor surgery on his ankle and Wenger really only planned on playing him if it was really necessary. Of course, it's hard to imagine Jack would want to be anywhere but on the pitch in this situation.
The flip side is that Olivier Giroud's three-game suspension is over and he will be in the squad. If the 20 minutes he played against Alan Pardew's side in December are any indication, it is very good news indeed.
Arsenal have played extremely well when under pressure lately. And Wenger and Giroud both theorized that playing with pressure on Sunday is a good thing. Something that will help his squad stay focused. From a practical standpoint, Newcastle are under no pressure as their Premier League future is secure. But in an odd twist of fate, they sit two points above their archrivals, Sunderland. And the Black Cats are playing Spurs. So it's a weird sort of north-northeast derby.
But if you think that's a bit odd, there is a chance that Sunday won’t actually be Arsenal's final game of the season. It turns out that if we do beat Newcastle and Chelsea are held to a draw at Everton, the right combination of scores could see us finish level on points, goal differential, and even goals scored. That would set up a playoff game on May 26th at Villa Park.
But we can save that conversation for later. After the final whistle on Sunday, we can look around and see where we are and make some plans. Until then we have 90 more minutes to stay focused on one thing.
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