Arsenal averted a full-blown crisis by returning to winning ways in the Premiership with a win over Hull last weekend. They are clinging to a top four place but once again they far from guaranteed a place at Europe’s top table next season.
Since he took over in 1996, Arsene Wenger has never failed to finish in the top four as Arsenal boss. In that time, no other English club has appeared in the Champions League every season. It is a remarkable record and one he should be proud of, even if he did anger fans a few years ago, amid a 10-year trophy drought, when he referred to finish fourth as “a trophy”. But now, in what could be his last season in charge at The Emirates, he faces the distinct possibility of failing to maintain his 100% record. Many will laugh at such claims: Arsenal always make the top four, it’s what they do, they never win the league any more but they always make the top four, either by starting poorly and finishing well, or starting well and ending the season by capitulating. They have flirted with failing to achieve top four status several times, notably in 2012-13, when they pipped arch-rivals Tottenham by a point right at the death, back in the days of Mind the Gap and Lasagne-gate. But Wenger, despite the many near misses and failures of the past decade, has always clung on to that stat, of always making the top four.
But this season things look decidedly more competitive. Chelsea are running away with the league title, but below them five teams are separated by just four points, with Man City second on 52 on Man Utd sixth on 48. With just 13 games to play, it really is squeaky bum time. Arsenal are currently fourth, below Spurs on goal difference, a point ahead of Liverpool and two ahead of Utd.
But the bookmakers don’t think they can cling on. Just like many pundits, the bookies are once again writing Arsenal and Wenger off. They have been proved wrong time after time, but they have made Arsenal fifth favourites. Football odds on who will finish in the top four have Chelsea as understandable 1/500 favourites, followed by Man City at 1/8, Tottenham at 4/9 and Liverpool at 8/11. Only then do you come to Arsenal, who are 10/11, followed by Man Utd at 6/5.
So the bookies think Man City are all but assured of a spot, Tottenham will hold onto their place and Liverpool will pip Arsenal. Gooners will be desperately hoping they are wrong. If Wenger were to finally leave in the summer, when his contract ends, the new manager would be able to attract a higher calibre of player, and have more money to spend, if they were playing Champions League football next season. Even if Wenger stays, Champions League football will allow him to bolster his side. Spending is never guaranteed with Wenger, and they are unlikely to win the Champions League any time soon, but being counted among Europe’s elite helps.
What of the other contenders? City certainly seem rejuvenated since the arrival of Gabriel Jesus and they do have the slender advantage going into the home straight. Tottenham have been great defensively and are very strong at home. Liverpool played great football as they beat Spurs last time out. And Man Utd are unbeaten since December, a run that has seen them make up eight points on Wenger’s men.
Arguably Mourinho’s side are one of the biggest threats. They are bang in form, the defence is looking solid and they are grinding out wins. But Liverpool can surely be overhauled. They are abysmal in defence. That win over Tottenham will give them belief, but it was their first of 2017 and it papers over cracks. And Spurs, who looked so formidable in January, are showing signs of imploding once more and finishing below Arsenal again. City’s defence is also woeful and if they buck up their ideas, Arsenal could well finish second still. They have a big squad, a real match winner in Alexis Sanchez and the ability to capitalise on the shortcomings of their rivals, and should still finish above Liverpool and one of the others.
Will Wenger prove everyone wrong again and manage to continue his Top Four record?