It’s tempting to compare this to cup final day: a one-off game to decide the destiny of the sole remaining prize on the table.
Typically of Arsenal, however, we’re talking about a cup without a trophy; a prize without a medal. Champions League qualification is rightly a priority for the club, but it brings with it no formal garlands.
Nevertheless, it’s important. Supporters are generally united in their desire to see Arsenal flex their financial muscle this summer; European qualification makes that infinitely more likely. It’d also us to avoid the significant heartache to be pipped up at the post by our neighbours and rivals, Spurs.
It’s in our own hands. Victory at St. James’ Park guarantees fourth place; perhaps even third if Chelsea slip up at home to Everton. Tottenham know they must beat Sunderland at home to stand any chance of leap-frogging us in to the Champions League.
Arsenal ought to have enough to secure three points today. In these end of season games, the side who needs victory more generally takes it. Footballers are hard to motivate at the best of times, and Pardew will have a job getting his lacklustre Newcastle side at the races for a game that matters little to them.
News broke last night that Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has offered a £1m bonus to the non-playing staff should they beat Arsenal. That doesn’t change much. Incentivising the dinner ladies is somewhat redundant when the dinner ladies are unlikely to be playing. I suspect the circulation of this story is a PR move designed to counter Alan Pardew’s ridiculous assertion that he “didn’t care” if the Toon Army got tonked now they’re safe from relegation.
As far as the team goes, I’d stick with the same back four that started against Wigan. Nacho Monreal has generally started the away games, but this is no time for rotation, especially at the back.
Olivier Giroud has returned from suspension and I’d favour immediately reintroducing him to the side. Podolski finished well twice against Wigan but his contribution to the rest of our play was minimal. Giroud provides a focal point and could prove useful for set pieces at both ends.
Finally, if there’s any way at all we can Mikel Arteta on the pitch, we should. Even if he can only manage an hour, it could be vital. He is the de factor captain of the team, and there is no direct replacement for him within the squad. If he picks up another knock and has to come off, he has several months to recover. One thing is certain: Arteta himself will be desperate to play.
When Arsenal take to the field at 4pm, I’ll actually be at work. I’ll finish at almost exactly the same time as the match, and log on to furious recriminations or wild jubilation. It seems absurd that a 38-game season can be decided on one match, one point, one goal.
That’s because it can’t. Whatever our final league standing is come 6pm, it’s important to remember that’s not so much down to the events of today as it is the story of the entire season.
Whatever happens, a backwards step will be required to assess this season properly. There’ll be time for that next week. For now, it’s time to cross all available digits and hope for the best. Come On You Gunners.