After the great comeback this season, Arsenal are stumbling towards the finish line as the need to secure third place in the league has become greater. Chelsea's unexpected success in Barcelona means we have to take the possibility of them winning the Champions League seriously. The thought of Chelsea being the first London team to win the Champions League isn't a good one, but to have them also put us in the Europa League by taking the fourth spot in next year's tournament, would be close to unbearable.
There's two ways to look at the Stoke match. It's easy to say that we dropped two points against a team that haven't had a brilliant season. However, on the positive side, it was a point gained at a stadium where we've had little success in recent seasons. With Newcastle's defeat, it's a shame we couldn't extend our points lead in third, but we still have third place in our hands. Beat Norwich City and West Brom, and we come third. Simple.
However this is Arsenal, it's unlikely to be simple. We can still optimistic about the two games though, as there were plenty of positives to take from the Stoke draw. We've been quick to go into our shell at the Britannia before, but we saw an Arsenal team on Saturday that were willing to face up to the more direct Stoke tactics, and then play our own attacking game.
We’ve been exposed by the long throw-ins and crosses into the box numerous times against Stoke, but generally we dealt well with them on Saturday. Szczesny gives the players more confidence when defending those balls into the box than our previous goalkeepers against Stoke have done. Our defensive organisation has improved immeasurably during the season, with Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen’s partnership has been a major part of that.
Despite the improvements, we still conceded from a cross. Arguably, there’s not much you can do when a six foot seven striker out jumps the shorter centre back. However if we want to aim higher than third next season, we can be doing more to stop conceding those goals. We needlessly lost the ball in midfield, didn’t close down the cross and were punished.
We usually concede early goals at Stoke, and mostly have capitulated afterwards. However it was another sign of the team making up for the less skill in side, with hard work and determination. To level the match so quickly meant that we didn’t allow the hosts to get on top of the game and allowed us to not become frustrated. We’ve performed worse in recent weeks when chasing games, and the longer we’ve been behind in matches, the more jittery we’ve become. We did well to avoid that on Saturday.
I’ve said before that I’d like to see Yossi Benayoun signed on a permanent deal as he has been an excellent squad player this season. He will never be a regular starter, but he’s the more experienced back-up player that we’ve been missing in recent seasons. His contributions to the equalising goal shouldn’t go unnoticed. He pressured Shotton high up the pitch and immediately put us on the front foot by winning the ball. Tomas Rosicky’s subsequent cross was superb and Robin van Persie finished it. The skipper showed why he’s been made double footballer of the year this week. It looked like an easy finish, but it was the excellent movement that enabled him to tuck it home. On a personal level, the goal edged van Persie closer to the Golden Boot; a prize that would befit his superb season.
The rest of the match was quite tight after the early goals. We defended well and did create some chances, but never anything as clear-cut as the equalising goal. Going forward, Gervinho was lively, but still can’t get near some of the good form he showed before the African Cup of Nations. With the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a good end to the season would help Gervinho start next season knowing he has a real chance of cementing a starting place. However if he doesn’t put in two good performances, and we then sign one or two attackers in the summer, the Ivorian might slip off the radar. He won’t want to become another Marouane Chamakh.
Speaking of the Moroccan, he was actually seen on the pitch on Saturday! He didn’t have a terrible game, but didn’t make a big impact on it. I’ll be staggered if Chamakh is at Arsenal next season. He’s the sort of player who should be able to affect games like Stoke away, but he hasn’t been able to do so this season.
Elsewhere in the team, Tomas Rosicky was busy in midfield, and it was worrying to see Abou Diaby limp off at the end of the game. He probably won’t play again this season, meaning we’re a bit short of central midfielders for our final two games.
One of those that are fit is Aaron Ramsey. Going back to Stoke reminded us just to be grateful that he’s playing again after the injury he suffered there. For Stoke fans to boo him was just brainless, needless and showed a real lack of class. I’m all for some fan banter; at Arsenal we’ve jumped up when an opposing manager has been annoyed by something, so I didn’t have a problem with the fans’ Wenger arm waving (although Linekar’s efforts were daft), but booing a player because he had his leg broken? That’s seriously low.
There are just two games left, and on paper they’re both eminently winnable. The last few matches have been as well, so we can’t expect six points, but obviously we have to aim for them. If we get the six points, the nightmare Chelsea scenario is out of the question. Norwich seem to be flagging at the end of the season, and even though our last two home games have been disappointing, our players should be desperate to end the season at the Emirates on a high. We’ve had some great moments there this season, so adding one last victory would put pressure on those behind us.
Tottenham, Newcastle and Chelsea have games in midweek, so they could be closer to us by the time we kick off on Saturday. Whatever they do in midweek, it shouldn’t affect our mind set and attitude towards the Norwich match.
We can still claim some success from this season by finishing third, and doing so would mean that Stoke was a good, solid away point. However if we fall to fourth from the end of season stumble, we’ll be cheering Bayern Munich on in the Champions League final. Then again, we’ll be doing that anyway!