Arsenal's Champions League hopes are in the balance going into the final day. Here I look ahead to our biggest game of our season.
The phrase 'biggest game of the season' is used far too often. The recent Manchester derby was, apparently, the biggest game in Premier League history. But then Manchester City's trip to Newcastle this weekend was suddenly even bigger!
No, the biggest games of the season are usually reserved for the final day, so Arsenal's trip to West Bromwich Albion this Sunday takes on that title for us. Yes, it really is the biggest game of the season. With a lack of actual trophies, qualification for the Champions League is absolutely essential if the club are to turn potential into something tangible.
To be honest, if someone had offered us the chance to be third going into the final match back in September we would have snatched their hand off. After the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, followed swiftly by a 4-3 loss at Blackburn, mid-table Liverpool-ocricy was all I could see for us. The signing of Mikel Arteta on transfer deadline day back in August was probably the most significant event of the season for us, but his injury means we travel to WBA looking to win for the first time in the Premier League this season without him in the side. Of the eight matches he has missed so far, we have drawn 4 and lost 4. So the omens are against us.
On the plus side, we do have a decent record at The Hawthorns. I can only ever recall us losing once there (1-2 in 2005) although we had to come from behind to draw 2-2 last season, a result that probably will not be good enough this time. Also, our performances in the last four matches have not been great. In fact, since going 2-0 up at Wolves inside 10 minutes just over a month ago, we have been poor. I thought we had turned the corner with a decent display at our nemesis, Stoke last week, but the sloppiness returned in Saturday's 3-3 draw with Norwich.
Quite how we are still third, having taken only three points from the last 12, says more about the teams around us than our own patchy form. Spurs have imploded, while Newcastle, for all their great performances, look as though they will fall short. Chelsea have had cup finals on their minds, while Liverpool, the club everyone predicted would take our place in the top 4, have been awful, or just plain unlucky if you listen to their fans. Either way it is still in our hands and we have to make the most of it. We really do need to finish 3rd as I am convinced Chelsea will win the Champions League, meaning 4th place will only be good enough for the Europa League. Personally I would rather not be in Europe at all than play in that competition.
Ironically, the last time we went into the final match of the season with anything riding on it was in 2006, and again we were head-to-head with Spurs for the final Champions League spot. They held the one point advantage then, so we had to better their result at West Ham. That was, of course, the famous lasagne-gate, where several of the Spurs players were taken ill on the morning of the match and they lost 2-1, Yossi Benayoun getting one of the Hammers goals.
This time the roles are reversed, with us going into the match with a one point advantage. It is us going away to a team with West in their name, and the irony continues as Spurs face a Fulham side led by Martin Jol, the very man who in charge of Spurs back in 2006! I just hope we do not have lasagne on the menu on Saturday night!
Of course, I expect us to win. West Brom, while in good form, have nothing to play for. Plus, I have rarely seen Arsene Wenger so angry as he was after the way we conceded the late equaliser to Nowich on Saturday, so I expect us to be really fired up.
But of course, there is far more at stake for us. Although the news on the transfer front is good, with Podolski already in and M'Villa likely to follow, failure to make the Champions League could be the final straw in the van Persie saga. I am convinced a top three finish will be enough to make him stay, but finish outside the Champions League places and I can see him being tempted elsewhere. It's not about money for him but ambition. He is 28 years old, he needs to be playing for a club who can challenge for the top honours, and that means Premier League and Champions League.
So, we are all set for a tense afternoon in the West Midlands. Being Arsenal I would not be surprised if we go behind and have to do it the hard way, but as long as we have the right result come 5pm on Sunday, all will be forgiven.
Everton 2, Newcastle 1
Spurs 3, Fulham 2
WBA 1, Arsenal 3 (last minute 3rd on the break after hanging on at the end!)