From the humiliating lows of a relegation battle just a month ago, Arsenal find themselves on the cusp of a Premier League revival…but they can’t afford any more slip ups.
After abject defeat to Burnley in December, the Gunners were left looking nervously over their shoulder at the sides below them as the gap began to diminish and the prospect of being sucked into the bottom three became very real.
Tonight, as Mikel Arteta’s men prepare to welcome Crystal Palace to the Emirates, the picture is altogether different, with the Gunners just a win away from finding themselves among a clutch of teams pushing for a European place.
Though the turnaround in and of itself has been remarkable, we can’t afford to let up just yet. We need to push our luck just that little bit further. With Palace and Newcastle to come in the next week, we have the opportunity to really cement the revival and stake our claim for a spot in the upper reaches of the table.
In seasons gone by, the teams above us may already have been out of sight, with any prospect of chasing them down largely fruitless. However, the last 18 months have shown us, time and again, that anything is possible in the current footballing climate and we find ourselves just nine points from a Champions League spot with more than half the season still to play.
Complacency, though, is a killer in the Premier League so Mikel must ensure his team pick up where they left off from the first whistle. In Zaha and Eze, Palace have two mercurial talents who are well capable of causing us problems. Keeping them quiet will be key, especially on the break.
Ceding possession to Zaha in our own defensive third is also something we must avoid at all costs. The 28-year-old is an experienced and wily campaigner and knows exactly how to make the most of situations in and around the area. Given our recent flirtations with Palace over his transfer, which resulted in us opting for Nicolas Pepe, I expect he will need no added motivation to prove a point.
With no new injury or COVID concerns apparent, I see no reason to tinker too much with an Arsenal team that has been playing some excellent football of late. I would expect the manager to start Alex Lacazette through the middle, Bukayo Saka right and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left, with Emile Smith Rowe completing the front four. Gabriel Martinelli’s short-term absence means we won’t have his talents to call upon but we could see a return to the starting line-up of Thomas Partey – the very definition of ‘like a new signing’.
If he starts, it will be exciting to see his influence on the midfield and whether he is able to add a new dimension to a team that has, until recently, struggled badly to build the play and progress the ball through the lines. In an ideal world, I’m sure the manager would prefer for Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka to get the job done in the first 70 minutes, with Thomas afforded a 20-minute run-out to close things out but, with so much at stake, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him start.
While I am feeling more confident about this fixture than I have done for any match in the last three months, I know we are unlikely to see Palace fold quite so dramatically as they did against Liverpool a few weeks ago.
But the rewards for Arsenal here are obvious. A win puts us right back in contention for a European place (with much more work still to do, of course) while defeat sets us on an altogether different course for the rest of the season. If the former of those possibilities is the aim, the slip ups have to stop.