Glorious failure that will spur them on to a grandstand finish in the Premier League? Or yet another crushing disappointment that will keep their erratic season in a tailspin? Just how will Arsenal react to their Champions League failure when they travel to Swansea City on Saturday?
Predicting what is going to happen next in Arsenal’s season has made a fool out of people far more intelligent than me, but we can say this with some certainty: with ten games left, the Gunners need to have their best spell of the season if they are to have any chance of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bayern Munich in next season’s Champions League.
Because as it stands, a 16th consecutive season in Europe’s top club tournament is in serious doubt. Sitting in fifth position, five points from fourth place Chelsea and seven behind rivals Tottenham Hotspur (who have admittedly played a game more), there is no room for error for Arsenal as the season reaches its most important stage.
Arsene Wenger has admitted as much, stating before the damaging north London derby defeat to Spurs in their last Premier League outing that his side could ill afford to drop any more points now the run-in is upon us. That they did in a 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane has put huge pressure on Arsenal to have a near-perfect end to the season.
Of course, with the bizarre Rafa Benitez experiment at Chelsea and Tottenham’s recent history of late-season collapses, there is still some hope for this Arsenal side, even if it is quite possibly the least talented, least physically imposing and least mentally tough group of players Wenger has ever had at his disposal.
A relatively easy run of fixtures will help, with Reading, West Bromwich Albion, Norwich, Everton and Fulham to come after the trip to the Liberty. But there is no point in looking too far ahead, and the Swansea match is vital, and it will no doubt stick in the throat of the traveling Gunners that the Welsh side are still basking in the glow of winning a trophy, eight years since their club did likewise.
Arsenal are 23/20 to win the game, with the draw at 11/5 and a home success priced up at 12/5 and I am erring towards the stalemate on this one.
If this match was several weeks ago, I would be gobbling up that price on Swansea but post-Capital One Cup victory, I am wary as to their motivation. That is not to say Michael Laudrup will not be preparing his team in the correct way, or his players not taking the game seriously. But with a domestic trophy in the bag and the magical 40 point mark achieved with ease, the Swans have hit their pre-season targets and then some, and there will be an inevitable downturn in results as the campaign draws to a close – there are many examples down the years of it happening to teams in Swansea’s position.
But I am still equally wary about Arsenal as well. The Gunners have won many plaudits for their performance against Bayern, and there is no doubt that winning 2-0 at the Allianz is a tremendous result. But strangely, I don’t actually think they played that well, save for their defensive solidity. Munich were sloppy and uninterested, and I am not reading too much into the result where Wenger’s side scored with their only shots on target.
The pressure was very much off Arsenal there, too, yet it is cranked right up against Swansea, and I don’t want to touch the 23/20, especially when the Liberty is such a tough place to go. Laudrup’s men have lost just twice in 18 games at home all season, and haven’t tasted defeat in eight fixtures on their own patch.
Swansea have held Chelsea twice, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal (in the FA Cup) at home already this season, and are a tough side to get the better of. That said, Arsenal have lost just four times on their travels in 14 games in 2012/13, and are much more solid than they are given credit for, boasting the best away defensive record.
Yet Arsenal have only won one of their seven trips to teams in the top half of the division, and as Swansea haven’t lost two games on the bounce since September, I can’t be on them with any confidence. For me, this looks as evenly matched as you can get, and the 11/5 on the draw is my play.