Oxford done. Three big games to come. Spurs, Man United and Man City……by Joel Mians
The lacklustre first half of Monday night’s FA Cup tie at Oxford was a tough watch for all Arsenal fans. Even despite the seven changes to the starting XI from the Newcastle draw, there was a concerning lack of rhythm and conviction in how the team sought to attack their League One opponents.
Dressed in their special all-white ensemble designed to highlight the club’s “No More Red” campaign, the away side were performing like their energy had been drained alongside the colour from their kits, much more akin to a typical first half showing this season from another team in North London… (More on them later.)
Thankfully, Mohamed Elneny’s header and Eddie Nketiah’s well-taken brace averted any prospect of a humiliating cupset at the Kassam Stadium and booked their place into a fourth-round clash away at title rivals Manchester City.
Arsenal’s attention now returns to their long Premier League quest, and the short trip across North London this Sunday to take on bitter adversaries Tottenham.
After missing the chance to go ten points clear at the top last Sunday, the Gunners’ lead may be whittled down to two points, if City emerge victorious in their own local derby at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Saturday.
Arsenal’s impressive title charge thus far endured a minor road bump in their disappointing 0-0 draw against a Newcastle side who came to the Emirates, clearly intent on sitting back, absorbing attacking pressure and frustrating their opponents.
Forget Newcastle ‘parking the bus’, the Gunners effectively had to break open a black and white safe, breached only 11 times in 17 league games, but despite using every attacking combination at their disposal, the home side could not unlock the Magpies’ mean defence to steal those precious three points.
The next three games are likely to present the toughest test yet of any title credentials, which could just as well energise or significantly derail the burgeoning momentum the Gunners have gradually built this season.
Antonio Conte’s side pose the first of these three great hurdles, and even though Spurs have been notably inconsistent this campaign, they may hold the psychological edge heading into this encounter, with Arsenal’s wounds perhaps still raw from their crushing 3-0 defeat in May last year, which allowed their rivals to pip them to fourth place and Champions League qualification.
Nine years have passed since their last North London derby triumph away from home in the league, but Mikel Arteta, who played in that 1-0 win in 2014, will be desperate to ensure his young side do not falter like last year in the white-hot atmosphere at Tottenham.
Indeed, the Spaniard will be thankful to still have Bukayo Saka available this weekend, after Arteta declared the 21-year-old was “fine” after hobbling off the pitch on the 75th minute during Monday evening’s 3-0 victory at Oxford.
The mere sight of Saka writhing in discomfort may understandably increase the clamour of supporters, craving imminent attacking reinforcements this month.
However, with the ongoing discussions with Shakhtar Donetsk over acquiring winger Mykhaylo Mudryk not showing any signs of an immediate breakthrough, and no other incomings mentioned at present, it appears Arteta might have to tackle this crucial set of fixtures with his current crop of players, starting with Sunday.
Interestingly on Monday, the Spaniard achieved a remarkable feat, with the 3-0 win over Oxford. Arsenal’s 20th in all competitions this season in just 25 games, a new club record.
Any more victories from these next three games will have to be fiercely fought ones, but should the Gunners claim an enormous three points this Sunday, and bring in a new recruit before the following Sunday’s home match against a resurgent United, this North London derby could be the moment that definitively galvanises Arsenal’s title ambitions, as they enter the back stretch of the season.
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