Victory tomorrow at Manchester City will secure Arsenal a slot among Europe’s elite next season – it really is as simple as that.
If they win, they can begin planning for the start of the Premier League season free of distraction. If they lose, chances are they will be rushing back from summer holidays to prepare for a Champions League qualifier, possibly in the arse-end of Europe, certainly against a difficult, obdurate opponent.
*Nobody wants that*
The good news is that this is a Manchester City side struggling for form and coming into the game on the back of the most tepid Champions League semi-final performance I have ever witnessed.
They were so utterly off-colour against Real Madrid, I had to wonder whether they were deliberately saving themselves for Sunday’s match.
Imagine that – playing within yourself in your first Champions League semi-final, at the Bernabeu, in front of tens of millions of viewers around the world, simply to leave something in the tank for the Premier League.
The bad news is that this Manchester City side is almost as unpredictable as Arsenal – capable of both the ridiculous and the sublime. They have players of the highest calibre and players who can turn games in a heartbeat, but they are players who are liable to go missing without warning – just as they did in Spain.
The trouble for Arsenal is, there is no way of telling which Manchester City will turn up, and that makes them dangerous.
However you look at it, this is a hugely important fixture. Arsene Wenger set the tone in his Friday press conference when he said that the match would determine the future of the club. If that’s not stoking the fires, I don’t know what is. In truth, it’s not only stoking the fires, it’s pouring petrol on them and firing a flamethrower, too.
It’s not as if we don’t have a blueprint for success, though. In our last two Premier League matches against City, we have been superb. Victories both home and away were secured with discipline, hard work, and ruthless efficiency where needed.
I can see no reason why our approach to tomorrow’s game should be any different to those of the previous victories. More of the same concentration in midfield and defence, strong tackling, tight marking, and swift counter-attacking should see us to a positive result.
I don’t doubt they will create chances, it’s merely whether they will be able to convert them.
Aside from Per Mertesacker, who misses out with a hamstring strain, I can’t see Arsene changing his lineup. Personally, I would bring Francis Coquelin in for Aaron Ramsey, who I think still lacks a little of the confidence and swagger that made him so devastatingly effective in 2013/14.
I would also bring Danny Welbeck in up front for Olivier Giroud. Danny thrives in big games like these and a high stakes clash against his former Manchester rivals should be all he needs to hit top gear.
Olivier needs minutes and he needs a goal to boost his confidence, but we cannot afford to let him find his feet again in a game that carries so much importance. Barring injury, he should only be called upon if a goal is needed in the last 15 minutes.
All thing considered, Arsenal are well placed to get a result here. Apart from being away from home, the conditions are as suited to them as they can be. They shouldn’t lack for motivation and they have had a full week to rest and prepare. They could scarcely have asked for more.
Whether they can deliver when it is really needed – as they have so often failed to do this season – remains to be seen. It would be really very nice if they could get the job done and, who knows, maybe even put a little pressure on Tottenham, who have only a three-point cushion in second place.
The foolish, starry-eyed fan in me hopes that they will do the business, and do it in style. The weary, disappointment-ravaged realist in me says nothing is ever so simple.