Are Arsenal home and dry if they win at Wolves? Don’t look too far ahead
Premier League: Wolves v Arsenal, Wed April 11, 7.45pm
Arsenal fans are trying very hard not to think it, but you can’t escape the feeling that a win at Molineux tonight should be enough to cement their place in the top four for another season.
Mathematically it is not the case, as a win over Wolves would move the Gunners only five points clear of fifth-placed Newcastle with five games – and 15 points – still to play for.
But following Sunday’s victory over Manchester City with another victory, with Spurs and Chelsea dropping costly points in between, would give the Gunners a hefty advantage over their top-four rivals.
It would also put them seven points clear of Chelsea, who are the only team of the challenging trio Arsenal are still to play, at the Emirates on April 21. Win tonight and Arsenal can afford to lose that game and one of their other four and still finish above the boys from Stamford Bridge.
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Arsene Wenger has urged caution ahead of the trip to Molineux, just as Mikel Arteta, Thomas Vermaelen and a few others did after Sunday’s win over City.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest Arsenal are capable of slipping up against the Premier League’s bottom club – not least the fact that the Gunners have already lost seven away games this season, including last time out at QPR.
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That 2-1 defeat at Loftus Road should be uppermost in the players’ minds tonight because there is no doubt that they underestimated Rangers that day, and paid the full price for doing so.
There was something in the way Arsenal swaggered into the opening exchanges of that game, the way the pace of their attacking play never really got out of second gear, that suggested they thought they only had to turn up to win.
Wenger will hope that lessons have been learned. That defeat could have been so much more costly if Spurs and Chelsea had matched Newcastle and won both their games over Easter.
As it was Chelsea picked up four points and Spurs only one, and that has left the door open for the Gunners to make third place their own with victory tonight.
It should not be taken for granted. After all, Wolves forced a draw at the Emirates just after Christmas, although that was in the days when Mick McCarthy was still in charge, before he was ludicrously sacked by Wolves’ owner Steve Morgan and replaced with his assistant, Terry Connor.
Arsenal will be forced into at least one change tonight as Laurent Koscielny begins his two-match suspension for accumulating 10 yellow cards this season.
Johan Djourou will step in for Koscielny and hope for as smooth a 90 minutes as his last outing against Aston Villa when Arsenal cruised to a 3-0 win.
Wenger will also ponder making changes in midfield, with Aaron Ramsey possibly earning a recall in place of Yossi Benayoun who did well against City but tired towards the end.
Gervinho is another option on that flank, and his pace could worry a Wolves backline who have conceded goals for fun of late. But the Ivorian’s form has been patchy since his return from the Africa Cup of Nations, and he may well start from the bench.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another who could make the leap from bench to starting XI, and it could be in place of Theo Walcott on the right, with the England man also looking like he felt the pace towards the end of Sunday’s win over City.
The player Wenger would really like to rest is Robin van Persie, but he knows he cannot. The Dutchman has not scored for over 400 minutes since the win over Newcastle on March 12, but the striking strength in depth is non-existent.
Last season Marouane Chamakh scored twice in a 2-0 win at Molineux, but his decline in the 18 months since that game has been almost as remarkable as Van Persie’s scoring exploits during the same period. Wenger will not risk starting the Moroccan for such a vital game.
He knows that another QPR performance is something this Arsenal team are all too capable of, and also the importance of making Chelsea and Spurs pay for their dropped points on Monday.
With those two clubs locked in FA Cup semi-final action this weekend, neither will play in the league again until April 21, when Chelsea head to the Emirates and Spurs to QPR later on the same day.
By then Arsenal could be a further six points ahead of where they are now, and if they beat Chelsea could even be 11 points ahead of Spurs before Harry Redknapp’s side play in the league again.
But that, as Wenger cautioned yesterday, is getting ahead of the matter in hand. The matter in hand is winning at Molineux tonight. Everything else can wait.