After 37 matches of varying quality, Arsenal’s entire campaign will come down to just 90 minutes. The next hour and a half of play, against Newcastle United at St James’ Park on Sunday afternoon, will define whether this season’s performance can be judged as either solid, if unspectacular, or a total disaster.
It really is all or nothing. Should the Gunners slip up in the north east, Tottenham Hotspur can leapfrog them into fourth place, and consign Arsene Wenger’s men to the Europa League in what would be the ultimate form of one-upmanship. Arsenal, of course, haven’t missed out on qualification for the Champions League at any point in the Frenchman’s 16 year reign. The negative consequences of coming up short this year – both financially and on the pitch – don’t bear thinking about.
If the season started in February, the Gunners wouldn’t be having to mop their brow with such intensity – not through fretting over a top four finish, at least. In the latter stage of the campaign, Arsenal have been in scintillating form, taking 36 points from a possible 45. If they had replicated such brilliance over the course of the last nine months, a title challenge would have been certain.
However, it’s all ifs and buts. The fact that the club is still not guaranteed Champions League football despite such a run demonstrates the dodgy patches of results they have had. And memories of those demoralising games – defeats at Norwich and Swansea, and, most notably, the 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane – will all come flooding back if there’s a capitulation on Sunday afternoon.
Is that likely? It’s difficult to predict. After the Gunners’ crushing win over Wigan in midweek, Newcastle are now assured of safety, which should play into the visitors’ hands. Even when relegation was still possible, some of Alan Pardew’s side were still stumbling through vital Premier League matches lathered in sun cream and eager for the beach.
But Arsenal traditionally struggle at St James’ Park, coming away with just one league win in the past eight years. And there is always a chance that the Magpies, now free of any lingering worries over the drop, could return to the free-flowing, exciting style of football which saw them qualify for Europe themselves last year. But on recent showings, that exuberance appears to have long gone.
In the main, the Arsenal team picks itself, but the probable loss of Mikel Arteta due to injury is huge. Usually the most defensive of the midfield trio, Wenger is likely to turn to the walking wounded figure of Jack Wilshere to deputise, though playing Thomas Vermaelen in the role is another option available. Either way, it’s a conundrum Arsenal could do without tackling ahead of the grand climax.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Newcastle