Pre-Match Report

Premier League: W.B.A. v Arsenal - Preview

By Richard Clarke

And so it comes down to this.

A season within a game. Ninety minutes which will define 10 months of elation, frustration and drama.

The final act takes place on Sunday - the concluding afternoon of the 2011/12 Premier League campaign - when Arsenal visit West Brom.

Crucially, Arsène Wenger can still write his own script. Victory at The Hawthorns will see his side secure the third place in which they currently reside and, in so doing, reserve a 15th successive season in the Champions League.

Anything less opens the door for Tottenham (one point behind Arsenal, goal difference inferior also by one) or Newcastle (two points back with a vastly inferior goal difference).

Now remember that this is Arsenal Football Club and so any campaign that does not end with slow but sunny bus ride to Islington Town Hall is insufficient.

That is why Wenger calls third place "the minimum target". However given the undulations of this crazy campaign, and the neighbourly opposition his side will suppress in securing it, the Premier League's 'bronze medal' will probably suffice. 

Fourth would leave them open to, at best, a qualifier for the Champions League. The worst-case scenario would see Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in this month's Final to push Wenger's men down into the Europa League. Fifth would guarantee their inclusion in the lesser competition.

Arsenal are treading a fine line this Sunday. So you can understand why, ahead of the game, Wenger's words were weighted on the positive side.

"We have gone through all scenarios," he said. "We have the possibility of securing third spot on Sunday and we just want to take it. After that, we will face the consequences.

"We have a fantastic position, we are switched on and, if we win the game, we don't have to think about anything else.

"The rules are the rules, you know them at the start of the season and you have to accept them. But we want to finish third, we have the potential to do it, so let's do it. The consequences if you don't, you deal with after the game. You just have to look at it as an opportunity you want to take.

"For us it is just about finding the right mixture - to be focused, combative and relaxed but especially to be faithful to play our football. Because, at the end of the day, it will be down to playing well, no matter what is at stake."

Arsenal could have eased much of the tension had they held on to victory in the final minutes against Norwich last weekend or won at Stoke seven days earlier. They only have control on Sunday because Tottenham failed to take advantage at Aston Villa. However, this weekend, Harry Redknapp's side entertain a Fulham team with little to play for and without leading scorer Clint Dempsey. So you have to assume that Arsenal's only secure route into the Champions League will be via their first win in four games.

"For me we have been focused and switched on in the last couple of weeks," said Wenger. "I think at Stoke we had a good game and offensively against Norwich we had a good game too.

"I agree completely that, defensively, we were poor against Norwich. Maybe we were focused too much on winning the game and forgot that to win the game you need to defend as well. But Norwich played well too.

"I was [deflated after that game] because it was the first time in a long while that we did not have our fate in our own hands. You don't like that to happen.

"But the other teams did not take advantage of it. That is why it is back in our hands and, of course, that is a big lift for us.

"For me both teams, Arsenal and Tottenham, have not been capable to do [the job completely] this season.

"We have been in position where we were not capable to do it. For example when Norwich got a 3-3 against us. But we won against Tottenham in a period where they could secure the place. So it happened to both of us, Tottenham and us."

Wenger is hopeful that Theo Walcott will pass a fitness test on his hamstring and return to the squad after three weeks out. Despite suggestions to the contrary, Wojciech Szczesny is fine. Bacary Sagna had surgery on his broken leg this week so Francis Coquelin will deputise at right back.

The sub-plot of Sunday's drama sees Roy Hodgson bid farewell to West Brom before leaving to take over the England team. His time at The Hawthorns has rebuilt his reputation after that disappointing spell at Liverpool. 

Last season, West Brom finished 11th with 47 points. They are currently 10th on exactly the same figure. It is mid-table but hardly mediocre given the club has been re-establishing itself in the Premier League after dropping down to the Championship. Teams with greater resources have been struggling to stay up, or indeed gone down, while Hodgson has had his hand on the tiller at West Brom.

And, given they scored twice in the final 15 minutes to force a draw at relegation-battling Bolton last weekend, you must assume Sunday's opponents have not mentally cleaned out their lockers just yet.

"Roy Hodgson's teams are well-organised and usually play a 4-4-2 very well," said Wenger. "It is a system he was always faithful to.

"He has stabilised West Brom. They are mid-table and have been secure for a while now in the Premier League and that is a great achievement.

"I expect our opponents to play at their best [despite it being Hodgson's last game]. We'll adjust our performance to that and prepare ourselves to face a team who are focused and motivated. We are never disappointed when we imagine that. We got that against Stoke, we got that against Norwich. So, consequently, we prepare to face a normal game."

But, of course, it isn't a normal game. Pressure-packed finales never are.

During his press work, the manager twice suggested the situation reminded him of 'Final Salute' day when Arsenal bade Highbury the fondest farewell by overtaking Tottenham to secure fourth place.

That was six years ago and this is the most important, most thrilling and certainly most nerve-wracking climax since then.

We can only hope for a similar conclusion.


Team News

West Brom: Odemwingie (doubt - hamstring), Thomas (doubt - illness). Brunt (illness), Gera (knee), Reid (foot)

Arsenal: Walcott (test - hamstring), Arteta (ankle), Diaby (calf), Mertesacker (ankle), Sagna (broken leg), Wilshere (ankle), Frimpong (knee)


Random Facts

West Brom have lost more home games than any side outside the bottom three.

The last time Arsenal won a trophy without the retiring Pat Rice at the club was 1953.

The last time West Brom kept a clean-sheet against Arsenal was in November 1985.

This will be Arsène Wenger's 600th Premier League game in charge of Arsenal.

Robin van Persie needs one goal to equal the record for Premier League goals in a 38-game season. He'd have 31 like Alan Shearer in 1995-96 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2007-08.

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