By Richard Clarke
Arsenal need to make a point on Sunday.
A draw in the final game of the season with Fulham will finally give them security of third place. It is not the title victory they were challenging for a month ago but it IS both a guaranteed group spot in the Champions League and an improvement on the previous season.
Critics have emphasised the recent collapse in Arsenal’s campaign. They have recorded one draw and four defeats since beating Wolves back on April 3. It leaves Tottenham, of all teams, breathing down their necks. But in the mind of Arsène Wenger, the past month has merely emphasised the level at which they consistently compete.
“I am surprised [we are in this situation] because I thought we would make the points before now,” he said. “I knew that we had difficult games and that there could be something at stake. But it’s not too bad – it’s good to have something at stake and we have an opportunity to go for third place.
“I know this match comes after a few disappointing results and, of course, since we have gone out of the Champions League there was a little downer in our heads. But I think we have enough pride and quality to finish the season well and to secure the third place.
“The concern is that at the moment we have many, many players out and as well we just lost games without any real logic. We lost at Wigan, we lost at Blackburn on what I believe are controversial things which are difficult to accept, but we have to live with it and we have to secure the third place which will guarantee us the Champions League spot.
“You could see when you look at our rivals, you know that everybody celebrates. We don’t do that anymore because we have [qualified] for so many years that everybody finds it normal. It is not normal – it is the consequences of the quality performances during the season and it is not because we are Arsenal that we are guaranteed that.”
A raft of injuries just add to the feeling that Arsenal are limping over the line to third place. Cesc Fabregas (knee), William Gallas (calf), Thomas Vermaelen (calf), Denilson (groin), Manuel Almunia (wrist) and Aaron Ramsey (leg) were out well before Monday's trip to Blackburn. Tomas Rosicky (ankle), Alex Song (knee), Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and Gael Clichy (ankle) dropped out before the game. Only the last of those has any chance for Sunday. Wenger's squad is stretched to the point that he may bring in midfielder Henri Lansbury after he completed a successful loan spell at Watford last week.
At least Robin van Persie is fit and Andrey Arshavin could start after suffering no reaction to his calf injury against Blackburn.
You could not blame Fulham for having their focus elsewhere right now. Roy Hodgson’s side over-achieved by reaching the Europa League last season, they will really make their mark by winning it on Wednesday against Atletico Madrid. En route they have knocked out Juventus, Hamburg and Wolfsburg. In the process striker Bobby Zamora has worked his way into World Cup discussions and centre Brede Hangeland is once again much admired away from Craven Cottage. The same could be said of Hodgson himself as the summer's managerial merry-go-round cranks into motion. He fielded virtually a full-strength side at home to Stoke on Wednesday and still lost 1-0. Surely Hodgson will field a weakened team on Sunday.
“It could be like that,” said Wenger. “But I believe we are in the situation where you do not want to expect any weakness from Fulham. Let’s focus on our performance and make sure we turn up with the right attitude. Then I believe we will get the point or three points that we want and need.
“I was in their kind of position before a Uefa Cup Final I played with Monaco. I rotated the team a lot but you never know. Fulham have played many games and credit to them, they survived, but it’s funny because I had exactly the same situation as Fulham. Sometimes you get the injuries at the moment when you are nearly over the line, you get one, two, three injuries. It happened exactly the same to us that year."
Most of England will be happy to believe the Fulham fairy tale on Wednesday, such is the popularity of their homely manager. It is undoubtedly the feel-good story of the English football season.
Arsenal’s campaign was highly creditable before they went to Barcelona and, if they take third, it will still look decent enough once the dust has settled.
Tottenham’s recent rise has caused a certain unease. But everything is relative. Compare Arsenal to their North London neighbours competing in European competition’s top flight or the potential they exuded a month ago and your glass is half-empty.
Compare them with Liverpool or those gloomy pre-season predictions and it is more than half-full.
This may not be a campaign to remember but a point on Sunday will ensure it is not one to forget.
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