Arsenal, due to the postponement of the match at Wolves over the FA Cup quarter final weekend, have a game in hand over their three opponents for third and fourth places in this season’s Premier League. The TV rights holders must be licking their lips. They effectively have two races featuring the biggest audience grabbing clubs. One for the title itself, and the other a very close four horse race for next season’s Champions League riches.
Financially, Arsenal would be better off qualifying for the CL via a top four finish, as opposed to getting there by winning the Europa League. And if you are betting on which is more likely, you’ll get much shorter odds on the Gunners finishing in the top four than winning in Baku on May 29th. Arsenal are currently around 9/2 to win the Europa League (third favourites behind Chelsea and Napoli), whilst you generally find they are 4/9 to qualify for the Champions League by finishing third or fourth at the season’s end. This is obviously helped by the fact there are two spots up for grabs, increasing their chances.
Although in the odds Arsenal are slight underdogs to progress past Napoli in Europe, should they manage it, they will be playing twice a week for the remainder of the season. I can’t see Unai Emery throwing away the tie to focus on the league, although remembering the shocking away displays against BATE Borisov and in the previous round Rennes, his players have shown they are well capable of doing that without managerial instruction.
The quarter final will be different in that the away leg is second, due to Chelsea getting priority when the draw was made and both sides being drawn away first. European ties being what they are, Arsenal don’t necessarily have to win the first leg to qualify, although a defeat would certainly make their task near impossible given the recent form of Napoli and the intimidating atmosphere of their San Paolo stadium.
Emery has used a policy of rotating his players to ensure they are physically in shape for the large number of matches Arsenal have played this season, and elimination from the domestic cups after playing a total of five games in the two competitions has helped in this regard as well. There’s no reason to believe he is going to change now, and the only area where he does not have a great deal of opportunity to rest players is in the wing-back positions, assuming he retains a three at the back formation. Even then, if required, Monreal could move across to give Kolasinac a break on the left, assuming Emery feels he can risk starting Mustafi.
On the face of it, the players do not currently look like they are running out of steam, so the mix of rotation and new methods Emery has brought to player preparation seem to be working.
Given the unpredictability of his starting elevens, I genuinely do not think he will field weaker teams in Europe, although if, for example, he starts the likes of Lichtsteiner, Carl Jenkinson or Mohammed Elneny against Napoli, then I will be proved wrong. I suspect Arsenal’s head coach believes he can deliver both a top four place and a trophy and will pick his sides accordingly. ‘Weaker’ players are more likely to get a run out in the home games against Palace and Brighton, or away at Burnley if there is nothing to play for by that stage and Arsenal have reached the final.
There is certainly plenty of interest in the Napoli tie, with the home leg having sold out early (helped by the Grade C prices). It promises to be an intense end to the season if Arsenal do progress to the last four. However, it could also be an expensive one. Should the club make the final itself, flights to Baku are already around the £1,000 return mark. A friend predicted yesterday that the club would not even sell all of its ticket allocation, such is the expense of getting there, without even considering the cost of staying over for one night.
One thing is beyond doubt. If Unai Emery achieves his ambitions in the next eight weeks, his team will have played a large number of matches on the road. Five in the league and three in Europe. Along with four at home. Eleven of those in 36 days starting on Sunday. It’s daunting on one level, but what a top team wants to be doing at the business end of the season. Buckle up for the ride and as the cover of the current issue of The Gooner states, hold on tight.