With a satisfactory one-one draw at Villareal last week and an extension of an 18-game unbeaten run in the Premier League at Wigan on Saturday, Arsenal have maintained their momentum and given themselves plenty to play for in the closing weeks of the season. Certainly, this coming week with the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday and Saturday's FA Cup semi-final again Chelsea presents the Gunners with two massive games that could see them press forward or kill their season stone dead.
Last week’s first leg match with Villareal in the Champions League was, rather like the Premier League victory with Wigan on Saturday, a game of two halves. Arsene Wenger set his team up in a defensive-minded fashion with five in midfield. For the first forty minutes, the system was less than effective. The Gunners found themselves under a good deal of pressure and when breaking did not seem to be able to get bodies forward in sufficient numbers to create a sustained threat. Despite their territorial superiority, it took a swirling long-range drive from Marcos Senna to give the Spanish team the lead.
The second half though saw Arsenal retain the majority of possession and it was their turn to exert the pressure. Their equaliser came in the 66th minute from a stunning bicycle kick from Emmanuel Adebayor. Up until that point the Togo striker had performed poorly. His work-rate as a lone striker was lacking and his touch when in possession was below par. His goal-out-of-nothing turned his performance around as well as that of the team’s. From that point, only one team looked capable of winning on the night. In the end, Arsenal had to settle for a draw and a precious away goal - which most supporters would have taken before the kick off.
One-one in an away first leg is always a bit of a strange result to have to defend in a second leg at home. Does the team concentrate on preventing a Villareal goal? Or does it go all out to try to win the match in front of home support in decisive fashion? Apart from the injuries sustained by Manuel Almunia, William Gallas and Johan Djourou decreasing the defensive options, this Arsenal team are not really equipped to eek out a nil-nil at home and one can only imagine them going for the win - and on the evidence of the first leg, victory is something that would be attainable if they play with the same energy, passion and flair as they did in the second half at the Estadio El Madrigal.
Though Arsenal’s defensive sick-list is a great concern going into Tuesday night, Villareal will be without Marcos Senna who injured himself in a La Liga match over the weekend. Apart from scoring the opening goal in last week’s encounter, the Spanish international was Villareal’s most influential player and he will be a big miss for them in the second leg.
As an aside, there will be plenty of emotion at Ashburton Grove on Tuesday as Robert Pires returns to North London and has the opportunity to bid a proper farewell to Arsenal supporters. He will undoubtedly get a tumultuous reception when introduced to the crowd. Even now, Pires is still idolised by Arsenal supporters. He was pivotal in so much of the success enjoyed during Arsene Wenger’s reign and he is still missed. His departure from the club did not allow a moment of mutual appreciation between fans and player but this will be remedied on Tuesday night. The gloves may come off and all sentiment put aside when the game starts but prior to that Pires will get the ovation that he so richly deserves.
On Saturday, Arsenal then pay their first visit to the new Wembley Stadium to face Chelsea in the semi-final of the FA Cup. It is sure to be a great day out for both sets of supporters but semi-finals are for winning - no one remembers the losers - and the tension will be unbearable. Chelsea have been somewhat unpredictable opponents this season. They are still capable of producing powerful domineering performances but have also displayed moments of defensive weakness, particularly at home, which have not generally been in evidence at Stamford Bridge over the past few years. It may seem an obvious thing to stay but whichever team plays the best on the day will win. On paper, Chelsea may just have the statistical edge over the past few years but Arsenal have a good recent head-to-head record against the Blues and whichever team has a "going" day will prevail.
So, it is a huge week for the Gunners. Who would have thought back in the depths of winter, when points were being dropped for fun and the team struggled to score goals that the team would be on the brink of an FA Cup Final and a Champions League semi-final? Saturday’s victory at Wigan coupled with Villa and Everton drawing yesterday makes a top four finish look all the more likely too. As yet, nothing has been achieved and certainly no chickens can be counted but with a month of the season remaining it is good that we still have a few dreams to dream. Let's hope this week's games make them rather than break them.