|Je suis aussi nerveux que vous êtes, Sébastien.|
With the international friendlies over, we can breathe a sigh of relief, albeit with a hitch in that a few Gunners come back home with a few knocks and nicks–Ramsey and Koscielny seem to have calf strains, and Vermaelen injured his ankle at some point. Ramsey and Vermaelen didn’t even play on Wednesday. Midfield will probably hold up without Ramsey; we can still field Cazorla, Diaby, Wilshere, and Podolski, but defense bets a little tetchier. If Vermaelen and Koscielny are not fit, we can put on Monreal, Mertesacker, and Sagna, but, after that, the cupboard is looking a bit bare. Jenksinson is available, but after him, we’re left with the likes of Squillaci or a call-up from the reserve squad. I like our chances against Sunderland, but I’d feel a heck of a lot better knowing that our defense, as leaky as it has been at full-strength, can take the field and hold the line.
Speaking of Sundlerand, we’re entering the final stretch of the EPL with 13 games to play, and we’re sitting in 6th, one point behind Everton, four behind Spurs, and eight behind Chelsea. A quick look at each club’s remaining schedule suggests that a 4th place finish is entirely within reach, but a 3rd place finish would demand one hell of a run. In the chart below, I’ve mapped each of the key team’s final schedules. I haven’t included later rounds for Spurs in the Europa League, us in the UCL and FA Cup, Chelsea in the Europa, or Everton in the FA because (a) they’re unavailable and (b) may not exist, depending on outcomes of the upcoming rounds. Between you, me, and the lamppost, I don’t mind getting knocked out of the UCL by Bayern as long as we put up a fight.
Back to the issue at hand, the chart below, in all of its festive Christmas-iness, offers what I think is a reasonable breakdown of each team’s prospects. Games highlighted in green are games that a team really should win or have little trouble winning, games highlighted in red are more challenging, difficult games that will be much harder to win, and unhighlighted games are various other competitions that matter only in as much as players might get injured or suffer from fatigue/distraction. Here, then, is said chart:
I don’t think I’m being overly optimistic or letting my biases unduly affect me here. Arsenal seems well-positioned to close out the season with a strong run–Everton and Spurs not only face slightly tougher schedules, but they also have less of a chance of going on a long run. After we play the second leg against Bayern, we face five teams whom we really should be able to beat if we’re taking ourselves seriously. I daresay that match against Man U is less-red than it looks; we lost to them 2-1 at Old Trafford when we were still adjusting to Van Persie’s departure, Wilshere was just returning (and got sent off), and when Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud were still settling in. If not for a Vermaelen whiff in, what, the 3rd minute, that game might have turned out somewhat differently.
If each time wins all of its green games but loses all of its red ones (tying each other in head-to-head matches with one of the other three on the chart), Arsenal finishes comfortably in 4th. Of course, if it was as simple as looking at the fixtures and saying, “well, Arsenal is better that Fulham, so they’ll win that…”, we wouldn’t need players, just actuaries. Anything can happen, including Newcastle beating Chelsea. Or Everton losing to Reading. Spurs losing to Norwich. Arsenal losing to Swansea. Funny things happen, but if we’re going for that 4th place “trophy,” it’s time to buckle down, get serious, and climb the table.