Of the three sides competing for the final two Champions League spots, the fixture list is kindest to Arsene Wenger’s in-form team, while Spurs and Chelsea must face each other
By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
The guard of honour would have hurt. So would watching Robin van Persie in opposition colours emphatically convert a penalty that he had won upon his return to the Emirates Stadium.
But a point against the new champions still felt like an achievement for this Arsenal team, one which has consistently tripped up against the elite this season.
“It keeps our unbeaten run going,” concluded Arsene Wenger in glass half-full mode. “We have got to be proud of ourselves. It was a good point,” added Theo Walcott.
Arsenal remain in pole position to board the Champions League gravy train for what would be a 16th consecutive year.
A home clash against Wigan Athletic is book-ended by trips next Saturday to QPR, who have already plummeted through the relegation trap door, and hapless Newcastle United on the final day of the season.
All three opponents sit in the bottom five. All three clubs were also defeated by Arsenal in the corresponding fixture earlier in the campaign. Indeed, Wenger’s side walloped seven past Newcastle in late December.
Even the most dis-satisfied Gooner would appreciate that their side has proved highly accomplished at brushing aside those whose principal ambition at the start of the season was simply preserving top-flight status.
Since the start of February, Arsenal have secured 24 points from their eight matches against Stoke City, Sunderland, Aston Villa, Swansea City, Reading, West Brom, Norwich City and Fulham. Of their three other league fixtures in this period they have been far less convincing, losing in demoralising fashion in the derby against Tottenham and drawing at home against Everton and now United.
That setback at White Hart Lane, which left Arsenal seven points behind Spurs, felt like a watershed moment.
But Wenger’s ruthlessness in axing skipper Thomas Vermaelen and Wojciech Szczesny – who has since being recalled due to yet another Lukasz Fabianski injury – has been vindicated with a series of resilient displays.
The swagger associated with the great Wenger teams has only been seen in isolation, usually against mediocre opposition when victory has already been secured.
Arsenal were terrific in the opening half-hour against United. Aggressive, motivated and purposeful, Theo Walcott’s expertly-taken second-minute goal was a justified reward. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted afterwards to being surprised by the ferocity of some of the home side’s challenges.
It seemed to have provided the platform for a key victory against a United who initially demonstrated all the fire of a team that had spent the week in hardcore party celebration mode.
But Van Persie’s eagerness to show his former club that he deserved their respect, if not their love, helped to switch on his team’s competitive button.
The Dutchman’s every touch was jeered but his decision to leave the club where he spent eight years has been fully justified by pilfering 25 league goals for the side that has romped to the title. It says much for Van Persie’s impact that the status of Wayne Rooney, subbed for the fourth time in five games, has been downgraded, most probably for good.
United grew in assurance as the game progressed and, by the end, Arsenal were hanging on. When handshakes were traded, it felt more like a valuable point for the hosts than a chance missed in the quest for fourth.
In a nod to the drama and title-winning significance that was the hallmark of this fixture during the Wenger glory years, Arsenal’s fans chanted the name of Patrick Vieira in the second half.
No Gunners captain has lifted a trophy since the great Vieira, who held aloft the FA Cup before he left in 2005.
Even the most ardent AKB (‘Arsene Knows Best’) would be hard pushed to argue that this current team stacks up with its predecessors either side of the millennium.
Of the current squad, who would get in those teams spearheaded by Vieira? A fully fit Jack Wilshere (he looked far from convincing once again during his substitute appearance), perhaps. Maybe Santi Cazorla. Walcott’s electric pace would certainly be a useful bench option.
With three games left, Arsenal’s only target is to clinch what Wenger calls the season’s fifth ‘trophy’ and end some of the growing disconnect between the dugout and those who sit in the most expensive seats in the Premier League.
For that, they are well placed following a highly creditable 26-point haul out of a possible 33.
The fixture list is kinder to them than either Chelsea or Tottenham, at least one of whom is destined to drop points when they play one another in what looks the pivotal top-four clash at Stamford Bridge on May 8.
For all Spurs’ progress under Andre Villas-Boas, they lack the experience of their two rivals in seeing a campaign to a successful top-four conclusion.
Arsenal have benefited from a far less punishing fixture list than Chelsea, who must still visit Old Trafford and a revitalised Aston Villa before ending the campaign, most likely four days after competing in the Europa League final, against Everton at home.
The odds lean slightly towards Arsenal achieving their principal ambition this season. That, at least, provides some solace as they sit 21 points in arrears of United.
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