By Richard Clarke
For the second successive weekend, Arsène Wenger has Chelsea in his sights.
Last Saturday, it was a direct match-up; Guus Hiddink’s side outgunning Arsenal in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley.
This Sunday, Middlesbrough are the opponents but Blue is
still very much the colour.
Wenger may have a Champions League Semi-Final just over the horizon yet he argues that the difference between fourth and third place in the Premier League will be “massive” in terms of next year’s competition.
And Chelsea are the team he has to catch.
In previous seasons, the Premier League’s top two went straight into the group stage and the lower ranked pair of the quartet had to qualify, albeit with the advantage of seeding. As a result, in the last two terms, Arsenal have had to get past creditable but beatable opponents in Dinamo Zagreb and Twente.
Next year it could be much tougher. This season’s third place team go straight into the groups but the fourth team will be subject to an open draw of all qualifiers.
Wenger is acutely aware that a bit of bad luck could leave Arsenal facing an early-season fight just to lay down one of the foundation stones of his season.
That is why he is desperate to reel in Chelsea. The Stamford Bridge side are six points ahead with just five games to go, but one of those is a visit to Emirates Stadium.
Wenger could not hoodwink Hiddink last weekend but he feels he may just be able to reel in Chelsea down the stretch of the season. The Frenchman knows he needs to.
“Yes, it is much harder for us if we finish fourth,” admitted the Arsenal manager at Friday’s press conference. “We have absolutely to focus on finishing third because then you are guaranteed a place in the Champions League.
“In fourth it's an open draw. You can take in Valencia, anybody, so it might be very difficult for us.
“I don’t really see this change as especially good. Sometimes this position can be decided by one goal on goal difference between the two teams. But, as a result, one will be completely in the Champions League while the other one is not.
“I felt it was better before. The champion and the vice-champion [went through automatically] and positions three and four would go through qualifiers. For me it looked more logical because there was a difference.
“But now it is a massive difference between third and fourth. So we’ll target Chelsea because they are in front of us.
“The first immediate target is Chelsea and we have a good chance to do that.”
Arsenal ambitions will be helped by the possible return of three players on Sunday.
“Djourou (knee) might be available,” said Wenger. “He has a final test tomorrow, Almunia (ankle) as well. Adebayor (hamstring) is back in the squad but he has a test tomorrow morning. Van Persie is not available and of course the other injuries – like Gallas and Clichy – are not back. Robin will definitely miss the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final too.”
That game with Manchester United will loom large at Emirates Stadium this weekend. Undoubtedly Wenger’s pursuit of third is sincere but his squad juggling for Sunday will indicate just how much resource he is prepared to throw into it.
Relegation has been haunting the North-East sides in recent months and Middlesbrough fans have been more scared than most.
Gareth Southgate’s side have won just two of their last 21 Premier League games, and failed to score in 11 of the last 16. They are three points adrift of safety and, tellingly have scored the lowest amount of goals in the Premier League – 25. Everyone else has at least got into the 30s.
That said, Middlesbrough beat Liverpool at the end of February and Southgate is unbeaten in his last five games against Arsenal.
“They are always difficult,” conceded Wenger. “They are a good side who made a bad start in the season.
“Because they are a young side, the lack of confidence has given them a big problem this season. But I believe they are a good team, they have a good young promising manager and the future will show that.”
For now, Wenger’s future is all about Sunday and next Wednesday. They can look no further.
A safe, injury-free and traditional 1-0 to the Arsenal would do just fine.
It will put pressure on Chelsea and clear the way for Manchester United.
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