A Big Day at the Top

When you reach this late stage of the season, with both domestic and European football approaching their conclusions, midweek matches seem to become much more frequent. This particularly Wednesday night is going to be a very influential one at the top of the Premier League table. Arsenal face a tricky trip to Molineux and Old Trafford hosts one of the most important Manchester Derbies we’ve seen in years.

The race for the Champions League places has been a strange one, particularly in recent times. No team below Manchester City and Liverpool are in the greatest of form. Slip-ups from the top sides are normally rare at this late point in the season, when earning every three points is more crucial than ever. That definitely hasn’t been the case this season. Manchester United’s 4-0 thrashing by Everton allowed Arsenal the opportunity to extend their slender advantage over Solskjaer’s side. A home encounter against and up and down Crystal Palace side looked like the ideal match in which they could do this. Mistakes at the back and an all-round underwhelming performance saw the Gunners suffer a shock 2-3 defeat. This has placed a lot of pressure on tonight’s match which, in truth, could go either way. Arsenal’s poor away form combined with Wolves’ tendency to cause an upset this season could see Emery’s men miss out on more much needed points.

There’s a case to be made for this having been one of Arsenal’s best campaigns in a number of years. It’s Emery’s first season in charge and there’s a general acceptance that he’s had to achieve what he has with a lower quality squad than those around him. His side have a real chance of playing Champions League football next season, whether they qualify by earning a top four spot or by winning the Europa League. Both of which they are more than capable of doing. Despite Arsenal being mocked as the owners of 4th place, achieving this wasn’t always a given towards the end of Wenger’s reign. Most fans would have viewed a Champions League spot as being a bonus rather than an expectation from Emery’s opening season in English football. Having said this, to be playing Europa League football next season, after everything they’ve achieved, would be something of a disappointment. On paper, Arsenal have the easiest run of games to end the season. Fixtures against the likes of Wolves, Watford and Burnley are difficult. But if you compare this run with Manchester United’s or Chelsea’s, Arsenal would be expected to accumulate the most points. They’ve played all their matches against the top six so have done well to find themselves in this position. They wouldn’t want to let themselves down now, with much easier opponents coming up.

One of Arsenal’s nearest competitors, Manchester United, face local rivals, Manchester City, in the second of tonight’s matches. City still have a slight edge over Liverpool in the title race. They currently find themselves two point behind, but with a game in hand. Claiming a victory when visitng Old Trafford is a big ask for any opponent. However, the current form of the two sides will make City clear favourites to secure the win and strengthen their hopes of claiming back to back titles. Guardiola has already ruled star man, Keving De Bruyne, out of this crucial encounter through injury, but his absence shouldn’t make a huge difference to the outcome. City are some way ahead of United in terms of quality. Even with one or two key players missing, anything less than a victory from tonight’s match would be a disappointing result for Pep’s side.

As for United, things seem to be going from bad to worse. They have suffered a drastic dip in form since Solskjaer was offered a three-year contract. This recent run of defeats and lacklsutre performances has been building more and more doubt over the Norweigan, and the latest 4-0 loss to Everton has been the icing on the cake. Solskjaer has faced his fair share of criticism but it has been the players who have received most of the blame. Rightly so. Questions have arisen over the attitudes of numerous individuals leading to calls for Solskjaer to be ruthless in the coming transfer window. Achieving success with a group of players who don’t want to be there is virtually impossible. Any player, regardless of their capabilities on the pitch, shouldn’t be allowed to play for a club of United’s magnitude if they aren’t 100% committed to the cause. There’s very little that Solskjaer can do to rectify this issue before the end of the season, making short term success a bonus more than anything else. Victories over City and Chelsea are essential for Champions League qualification, but a miracle will be required if this is to be achieved.

Tonight poses fantastic opportunities for Arsenal and City to take huge steps forward. With United looking like clear underdogs, Arsenal could all but end their top four hopes with a victory over Wolves. Either United or Chelsea will be dropping points next weekend which only adds to the fact that Arsenal must win tonight. The Champions League race won’t be much of a concern to City though, who will be expecting to boost their chances of winning the title in the home of their bitter rivals.

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