April 19, 2013

Every year around this time, we all look at the fixture list to determine which team in the race – be it for the title, a spot in Europe, or the relegation battle – has the easiest path. This season Arsenal looked to be the winner, on paper anyway. Before last weekend, a look at our final seven games included two clubs in the relegation zone, two more within five points of danger and one team smack dab at mid-table. The toughest match-ups – against Everton and Manchester United – were to be played at Emirates Stadium.

But inevitably this reality soon sets in: there are no easy games in the Premier League this time of year.

Exhibit A: Saturday's 3-1 win over Norwich. The Canaries frustrated us throughout the first half, took an unlikely lead just before the hour mark, and looked like they would steal all three points until the 85th minute. The final minutes were a blur - but in a very good way: Kei Kamara pulled down Olivier Giroud in the area, Mikel Arteta scored from the spot, and then Giroud put Arsenal ahead and Lukas Podolski sealed a fifth consecutive win.

Exhibit B: Tuesday's 0-0 draw against Everton. Granted, no one expected that this would be an easy game as Everton had been on a five-game unbeaten run of their own. The Toffees controlled much of the opening half hour, while we dominated the second half. Giroud went close on a few occasions, but otherwise neither keeper had much to do in what was a pretty rough-and-tumble game.

The end result is that Arsenal are back in the top four, one point behind Chelsea and two above Spurs, Both have a game in hand, but conveniently, said game in hand is against each other. Fun fact from the two games? Aaron Ramsey, who was much maligned by a number of fans as recently as a few weeks ago, was voted as man of the match by Arsenal fans for both Norwich and Everton. He has very much found his role and cemented his place in the team.

Regarding the Norwich game, the win actually lifted us above both of our London rivals and into third place. But if you think that impressed Arsène Wenger, you’d be quite wrong. "The position at the moment has no real meaning," he said. "It means we are all tight and the team that is the most consistent will get there."

The boss was asked whether his squad got lucky in the win – especially with the penalty call against Kamara. But to Wenger, it was a case of Arsenal working hard and getting into the right positions. “When you provoke maybe 10 times then one time you have luck, five times it doesn’t work and one or two times bad luck as well." And considering there were a fair amount of no-calls in the game, his explanation pans out rather well.

Giroud added one more point: that Arsenal never gave up. “We try to play until the end of the game so it's one of our qualities." And it's a really notable quality, especially since a knock against Arsenal in recent years has been not playing for 90 minutes and losing games late.

We took that same attitude into Tuesday's game. Wenger again was pleased with the spirit and commitment the team showed, but he was left frustrated by the scoreline. "With the number of set-pieces we had at home, there has to be a goal," he said in the press conference. Still, while we weren't able to nick a game-winner, we fought until the end, and most importantly, didn’t give up a bad goal.

We also responded well to Everton's physical approach. The manager noted that he was unhappy with a few specific challenges by Everton players, but overall he stressed that tackling and physical play is a big attraction of the English game, and not something he wants to see go away. He added, “Sometimes I watch foreign games and after 20 minutes you are bored because every time somebody goes down it is a foul, and you say 'Come on'. That is not football."

Looking ahead, Arsenal travel to Craven Cottage on Saturday to face Fulham. Despite their mid-table position, this is side that have been a bit of a bogeyman to Arsenal in recent years. We haven’t beaten them in the last four meetings, and last season's away fixture ended with a 2-1 loss. The good news is that based on our recent play, it’s unlikely we will give up two late goals like last year.

For each side, a key question is how they will respond to mid-week disappointments. Former Gunner Adrian Clarke feels that the tough draw against Everton will be a good thing for Arsenal, serving as a reminder that none of the remaining games will be a walk in the park. Meanwhile, Martin Jol's side suffered a 3-0 home loss to Chelsea on Wednesday. Will we see a beaten down squad lacking confidence or a group looking to redeem themselves?

As far as team news goes, Lukasz Fabianski will miss out again due to a rib injury he picked up against Norwich. More worrisome however is there are a number of question marks for us in midfield: Rosicky, WIlshere, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain are dealing with some niggles and it could come down to some late fitness tests. Fortunately, both Ramsey and Arteta are fit and ready to keep up the impressive form they have shown of late.

Fulham's defenders – two very tall gentlemen – could also determine who starts for us up front. Wenger has been talking up Podolski as a potential answer at center forward so predicting a starting XI right now is no easy task.

The biggest difference between Saturday's match and the reverse fixture could be that we have two left backs to choose from rather than playing someone out of position. Kieran Gibbs or Nacho Monreal? As Wenger put it earlier this week,  it's "another difficult decision I have to make in every single game."

Regardless of who starts and who sits, this is simply the latest most important game of the season for Arsenal. There are still four teams with a strong shot at ending the season in the top four, and it easily could come down to the final day of the season. Three points against Fulham will lift us back into third place, but any points dropped could prove devastating to our Champions League streak. No pressure guys.

Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 19 Apr 2013