Seasons on the line when Everton-Arsenal clash at Goodison Park
LONDON — On Thursday night, I spoke at a bookshop in West Hampstead, London. It was the release of Patrick Barclay’s excellent new biography of Herbert Chapman, the legendary Arsenal manager who is quite rightly considered one of the greats of the game. It was an overwhelmingly Gooner-centric crowd and they all groaned when Paddy and I pointed out that Arsenal, for all its failings this year, has actually had a pretty good season.
How good that season turns out to be is likely to be decided in Liverpool on Sunday, when Arsenal face an Everton side (live, Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET) that’s on a roll. The Toffees can close the gap on that final UEFA Champions League slot to one point with a win and they will still have a game in hand. So, how critical is this match? Very.
Consider that for much of the season the talk was about whether or not Arsenal could retain their perch at the top of the league. People were dreaming up in North London of winning their first title since The Invincibles era and why not? With Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — and with Manchester United in what can only be kindly called a "transitional" year — Arsenal had perhaps their best chance to break the stranglehold that Chelsea and the Manchester clubs have had on the crown since.
Ah, but the best laid plans tend to collapse in North London. Perhaps the farce started when, instead of buying a competent striker or at least defensive cover, Arsenal plopped down for an injured Kim Kallstrom, a man who has only just returned to fitness and has yet to play significant minutes for the club. Or, perhaps it began when Ramsey injured his thigh on Boxing Day in a routine win at Upton Park over a very average West Ham side. Perhaps it began when the games started coming too thick, and Arsenal’s mental fragility stood revealed. The 5-1 shellacking the Gunners took at Anfield was just the first of a selection of indignities we can recall; 6-3, 6-0, 1-0 at lowly Stoke, and there are more and thus we come to the here and now.
This Arsenal side that once had a legitimate chance to win at least trophies, is now clawing to play in Europe next season. They are even getting sympathy votes to hoist the FA Cup (Can you imagine what will happen if Wigan upset them next week? Arsenal fans can, yes). Arsene Wenger has gone from being a lock to return next season to being something of a doubt. Ozil? He’s out injured and faded so badly down the stretch that one wonders if can recover. Wilshere and Walcott are out long-term; Ramsey is a rare bright spot, making his return to the squad this weekend.
It says something that Everton are heavy favorites for this game bizarre when you consider that the Toffees haven’t beat Arsenal since 2007. That’s 14 straight games, and the last time the two sides met Arsenal whipped them 4-1 in the FA Cup. However, things in the league are a bit different. Since Chelsea edged Everton in February on a stoppage-time own goal from Tim Howard (incorrectly attributed to Frank Lampard), the Toffees have been on a tear. They have taken full points in their last five games. Arsenal? They’ve taken just five.
The Gunners did appear to stop some of the rot with a gritty 1-1 draw against Manchester City last week. It is also fair to note that of the five teams Everton beat in this last stretch, only one of them, Newcastle, is in the top half of the table. It’s easy to beat up patsies like Cardiff and Fulham; it’s a bit harder to the job against a team that actually has some world-class talent.
If Ramsey is able to start, then we might finally see the re-emergence of the slick attacking game that made Arsenal so mesmerizing earlier this season. With Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini working on containing Everton’s own excellent duo of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, Ramsey and Santi Cazorla might have the freedom to create. And if that’s the case, we might finally see the re-emergence of Olivier Giroud as a force up top. Giroud, who is not a top striker by any stretch, looked much better when Ozil and Ramsey were there to give him some service.
At the back, Arsenal do have a couple worries as Laurent Koscielny is still out. That means Thomas Vermaelen will be targeted by Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu. Seamus Coleman is likely to give Kieran Gibbs all he wants; Ross Barkley, so impressive this season, is a doubt to play.
But back to where we started, with the groans of Arsenal’s own faithful. The truth is, this has been an exciting season for the side. They looked like true contenders for the first time in ages. Opinions are split over whether this was a fluke, or is sign of genuine hope for next season. Arsenal never had the horses to keep up with Manchester City, and they lack both the tactical nous and sheer bloody-mindness of Mr. Jose Mourinho. And yet, there they were. And if they win Sunday, they should see the season out: Everton are the last team of significance they will face. Everton still have to play both Manchester sides.
So, cheer up Arsenal fans. No, you’re not going to win the title. But you might win the FA Cup, and you could once again be playing football on Tuesday or Wednesday nights.