By Chris Harris
"Finishing second means we are better than 18 teams. You want more because you want to finish first but, still, all the teams behind you would exchange [their place for] that." - Arsene Wenger
If only Mesut Ozil or Danny Welbeck had connected with that late cross from Nacho Monreal. If only Per Mertesacker had hit the target with a very presentable chance of his own.
Arsenal's 0-0 draw with Chelsea was a game of not-quites but, clearly, the title wasn't lost last Sunday.
The biggest 'if only' of all concerns the campaign's opening weeks, when Arsenal won two of their first eight league games while Chelsea blazed a trail at the top of the table.
Whatever the result last weekend, the damage was done. Chelsea have since wrapped up the title, leaving Arsene Wenger to reflect on what might have been had his team made a flying - not faltering - start.
"I believe that the top four teams all have a different history this season," Wenger told Arsenal Player. "Some started very strongly, like Chelsea, who have taken advantage of that. Manchester City had ups and downs, which I think was as well linked a bit with the Africa Cup of Nations, where they lost players.
"Manchester United and Arsenal had a slow start and became stronger in the second part of the season. Chelsea [have won the league] because they have been the most consistent from the start to the finish."
All the same, Arsenal can take solace from another robust display against a big rival. Last season's Achilles heel was their record against the best; this term, they've won at both Manchester clubs and dismantled Liverpool at the Emirates.
That's partly why Arsenal are favourites for the runners-up spot, but there is little margin for error as they prepare to face Hull City on Monday.
No team has been more consistent than Arsenal since the turn of the year and no Arsenal player has been more consistent than Alexis - recently voted into the PFA Team of the Year.
The Chilean has been a bona fide game-changer in his debut season and Chelsea were quick to target him last weekend. Branislav Ivanovic dished out a few early 'reducers' but, if anything, that kind of treatment just galvanises Alexis.
"It’s certainly exceptional to have such a straight impact on the team and on results in his first season"
"He’s not afraid of physical contact," noted Wenger. "I am a little bit surprised [by his endurance]. Not so much on the physical front, but more on the mental aspect.
"He’s always wanting to go - he recovers so quickly mentally. We are not all equal in front of that mental stamina. Big games are very demanding on the stress and mental aspect, and some people need longer to recover than others, but he looks to be one of the guys who is ready for it every day.
"It’s certainly exceptional to have such a straight impact on the team and on results in his first season. For Alexis, the challenge will be to show that he can do the same and even better in his second season."
Alexis will fancy his chances of scoring against Hull for a third consecutive time, and he is part of an Arsenal squad in rude health. Only Mathieu Debuchy (hamstring) is injured, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby are not yet deemed fit enough to return to the squad.
Laurent Koscielny is poised to make his 200th appearance for Wenger's team.
Hull were having a dismal time of it until back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Liverpool gave them a fighting chance of salvaging their top-flight status.
Few gave them a chance of that after eight defeats in 13 games but Wenger was in the minority. The Frenchman has seen plenty of Hull in recent times - Monday's game is their fifth meeting with Arsenal in 12 months - and he suspected they would survive.
"They have two strong aspects - strong defensive compactness and big pace up front"
"They look like they are getting out of it and I always thought they would get out of it, but there’s not much time to go and they’ve found the results at the right moments," he said.
"We have a big challenge in front of us because we know Hull well. We played them last season in the FA Cup final, played them this year in the cup again and already at home in the Premier League. We know that they are a good side.
"They have two strong aspects - strong defensive compactness and big pace up front with Dame N’Doye and Sone Aluko.
"On the flank they have Ahmed Elmohamady who we know well from the cup final, and he provides good crosses. Their team is very quick on the counter-attack so that will be very tricky for us."
The title may have gone but, to all intents and purposes, so too has the 'race for fourth'.
Most Arsenal fans were braced for that familiar battle but a scintillating run of 17 wins in 20 games has changed the perception of their team. Suddenly there is the prospect of a first top-two finish in a decade.
"You want to go out of the season and think you have given your best until the last game of the season"
Manchester United have stalled - their home defeat to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday left them two points adrift of Arsenal having played twice more - but deposed champions Manchester City have clicked again. They lie three points ahead of Wenger's team; the Gunners have two games in hand.
This time last year the pressure on Arsenal to end their nine-year trophy drought was stifling. Twelve months on things are less fraught, and Wenger can see a link between Arsenal's burgeoning belief and their run of 13 first-half Premier League shut-outs.
"It is down to psychological ingredients, that you start without any hesitation," he explained. "You start with a strong belief and determination, and you always want as a manager to get your team to have a strong start [to matches].
"That has to be linked with belief, and the belief comes from good results. Good results come from good starts, so it’s a bit of a vicious [circle]. We have improved on that front, because we have a better defensive stability.
"We want to finish as close [to Chelsea] as possible," declared Wenger. "You want to go out of the season and think you have given your best until the last game of the season.
"Finishing second means we are better than 18 teams. You want more because you want to finish first but still, all the teams behind you would exchange [their place for] that."
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