Can Arsenal save their season by beating Manchester United?

Here we find ourselves, just over a quarter of the way through the season and the usual four-horse race seems to have already become a three-horse race. For the last few years, if a team had dropped behind this early it was usually Liverpool, but this time its Arsene’s Arsenal. Now, at a hugely pivotal point in their season, Arsenal find themselves pitted against Man Utd on Saturday, in a hugely important tie for the London side.

But is it really that bad?
The fact that people are already writing off the Gunners is much more a reflection of the way they’ve played in the last week (coupled with mishaps incurred against Stoke), than their actual league position. The two Premier League games this last week have seen them firstly throw away a 4-2 lead over bottom-at-the-time Spurs, with only a minute to go, and secondly lose to Stoke, who everyone expected to be whipping boys for the Big Four teams.

Furthermore, they have also lost to Hull and Fulham, two more teams against whom Gooner’s expect to gain not just three points but a valuable goal difference boost too. For the majority of Arsenal fans, in the build up to all three of their losses, the win was supposed to be a forgone conclusion, the question being more; ‘How many can we win by?’. Their inabilities against smaller or struggling clubs are also evident in their two draws, firstly to Sunderland (who Chelsea thrashed 5-0 and Liverpool beat 1-0) and then, notoriously, to bottom of the pile Spurs.

In the days following the Stoke game, Arsene Wenger has done an about-turn in his comments in the press. On the day of the match, Wenger praised Tony Pulis’ men and said they deserved the victory, but he has since come back and made harsh comments about the intentions of Stoke players, claiming they purposefully attacked Arsenal players, with no intention of playing the ball. A little two-faced considering Van Persie’s unnecessary collision with Sorensen. Stoke’s manager and chairman have both voice disgust at the comments.

Further pressure came piling down on Wenger in the form of injuries and suspensions, sustained in the Stoke loss (btw check this for an amusing stab at Arsenal and the Premiership’s inability to deal with Stoke’s long throw-ins) when Walcott (shoulder), Adebayor (achilles) and Sagna (thigh) picked up injuries and Van Persie got himself suspended for a pointless attack on Sorensen.

The Frenchman’s recent comments have concentrated on the tackles in the Stoke game that lead to injuries to Adebayor, Sagna and Walcott, in his typical moan-and-pass-the-blame style. But what he hasn’t really pointed out (though Nasri has) is that Arsenal are just six points off the top (far from catastrophic with 27 games to go) and they still haven’t played a single one of the other title contenders. So the key is to get some good results in those big games and the top of the table will change drastically.

Thrown a bone
The team who seem most likely to be knocking on the Top Four Door, if Arsenal did fall out, is Aston Villa, but they have thrown Arsenal a life-line from the media-bashing by losing to bottom of the league Newcastle United. Had Villa drawn or won they would’ve gone above the Londoners, but with their loss it buys Wenger a little relief from the pressure thats weighing down on him.

In Europe
Arsenal have now added a disappointing draw at home to Fenerbahce to their critic’s ammo pile, in a game that they had plenty of chances to put to bed, but lacked sharpness in front of goal. Had Arsenal won the game they would’ve damn-near sealed their passage through the group phase, but now Group G has been blown wide open, with just 3 points between them and non-progressing third place.

It’s not over, not over, not over yet
Arsenal’s season is far from over though and the ‘Sack Wenger’ talk is (as usual) premature, they are fourth in the Premiership, just 2 wins off top and they also top their Champions League group. The main worry for them will be; as they’re struggling against the smaller teams, how will they beat the big ones?

The game this coming weekend against Man Utd has become a must-win, though they go into the game with no Adebayor or Van Persie and Walcott, Sagna, Gallas and Eboue are doubts too. But this current Arsenal certainly won’t be the first team to need a big game to make them come alive, so it’s still ‘Game-on for the Gunners’ for now.

Can they begin to turn it around with a victory in this game?

Martin Banks writes at the Aston Villa Blog.

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester United - English Premier League - 8 November 2008 - Live Blog
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