As a man once said: it’s squeaky bum time.
I’ll confess: I don’t really know what that means. Not literally. It could refer to the squeaking sound created by edging forward on your seat in excitement, or the flatulence created as a consequence of anxiety. I haven’t got a clue. I’m not sure anyone really knows. People just accepted it and laughed, because that’s what you did if you wanted to stay on Alex Ferguson’s good side. More of him later.
Figuratively, I know what it means. It refers to the unique tension experienced at the business end of the season. It’s a tension all too familiar to both Arsenal, as they chase a Champions League spot, and tonight’s relegation-threatened opponents Wigan. This ought to be a hell of a game. Anything other than a win for Wigan will see the Lactics effectively relegated. Anything other than a win for Arsenal will hand Spurs the initiative in the race for the Champions League. It’s a straight-up shoot-out. If I were looking to put a bet on in a place like Unibet in this game, I’d be scouring the live betting odds for more than four goals in the game.
Going gung-ho will suit Wigan, who are more comfortable in possession than under pressure. They will be buoyed by the weekend’s FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City, and with good reason: few sides in the bottom half of the Premier League could take the game to City with the ebullience and effervescence Wigan displayed. The attacking trio of McManaman, Maloney and Kone would grace teams far higher up the table.
The Wembley turf is famously energy-sapping, and Arsenal will be hoping to exploit those tired legs tonight. The permutations could not be plainer: Chelsea’s win at Aston Villa has all but secured them a top four spot. If Arsenal win both their remaining games, they are guaranteed to join them.
If Arsenal do relegate Wigan tonight, I’ll be sorry to see them go. Few teams in this league play football with more ambition and artistry. However, I’d far rather see Wigan go down than see Arsenal effectively relegated from the top four – especially if Tottenham were to benefit.
Arsene Wenger faces several selection dilemmas. The return to fitness of Lukasz Fabianski threatens the place of Wojciech Szczesny, while the manager must also choose which of Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal is best suited to cope with the trickery of Calum McManaman. In midfield, Jack Wilshere will be pushing for a recall, while Lukas Podolski’s inert performance at QPR could see his claim to the central striking role come under threat from Theo Walcott and Gervinho.
Whichever side Arsene names tonight ought to be good enough to secure three points, but we’ve been here before. In this fixture last season, Arsenal were foiled by a tactical masterclass from Wigan. It won’t be easy.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think it would come to this. I didn’t expect Chelsea and Spurs to pick up quite so many points from the run-in as they have. Last season, it felt as if no side wanted the Champions League spots. This side, no-one wants to give them up. It would be cruel and painful to miss out so late in the day.
A word on Fergie. Whatever your opinions of the man, it’s hard not to have an enormous amount of respect for what he’s achieved in the game. As I watched him bid farewell to an appreciative Old Trafford yesterday, I couldn’t help but hope that we’re eventually able to give Arsene Wenger a similarly warm send-off.
Two wins this week would help make that a little more probable.