Finding themselves 1-0 down to West Ham heading toward the half-time interval on Tuesday, Arsenal were facing the prospect of finishing the week five points behind Everton in the race for fourth place.
That would surely have been that as far as Arsenal’s 16-year unbroken run in the Champions League was concerned. And that may well have been it, too, for Arsene Wenger’s 18-year reign. The Frenchman has cut an increasingly forlorn figure on the touchline in recent weeks and after having spent much of the season challenging for the title, the failure to even make the Champions League may have led both Wenger and Arsenal to view a change as necessary.
Instead, Lukas Podolski drilled a trademark shot into the bottom corner of the West Ham net with just over a minute remaining of the opening period. Instead of likely hearing boos and increasingly loud murmurings of discontent at the half-time whistle, Arsenal headed back down the tunnel reenergized and with a weight lifted off their shoulders. The second half saw two more goals and a comfortable win. A day later, things got much, much better still when Everton suffered a home defeat to Crystal Palace.
With four matches remaining, the fourth spot is now in Arsenal’s hands. They may have failed woefully in the big games this season, including recently against Everton, but it could well not cost them a vital place in the Champions League. Everton manager Roberto Martinez predicted with confidence that Arsenal would yet drop points before the end of the season, however that would appear wishful thinking.
Arsenal have been incredibly efficient in beating the teams below the Premier League’s upper echelons this season. All of their remaining opponents are outside of the top eight, with Norwich City and West Brom in terrible form and down near the bottom of the Premier League for a reason, while Newcastle United have been on the beach since January.
An away trip to Hull City on Sunday may be their toughest remaining fixture but Hull, too, might have their minds elsewhere. The match is, of course, a preview of the FA Cup final at Wembley next month -- the first time Hull will compete in English football’s most celebrated occasion in their 110-year history.
Six points above the relegation zone, Hull are not out of danger just yet, although manager Steve Bruce will have his work cut out to prevent the feeling creeping in among his players that they have likely already done enough.
Two players who are likely to be fully focused are Hull’s striker duo. January arrivals Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic will both be cup-tied for the final, in theory making Arsenal’s task on Sunday more difficult than that at Wembley. Yet, while they, and Long especially, have aided the team in other ways, the pair have hardly been as prolific as the survival-ensuring media narrative suggests. Long has three goals in 11 appearances since his arrival from West Brom, while Jelavic has only managed three in 12 since arriving from Everton.
The center of Arsenal’s defense, now back to full strength following the return from injury of Laurent Koscielny in midweek, should be equipped to deal with the duo. Arsenal’s diminishing injury list provides further optimism for their prospects in the remaining weeks of the season. Indeed, Wenger now has options again, particularly in midfield. Aaron Ramsey is back and performing encouragingly after a three-month absence, while Mesut Ozil could well be back on the bench on Sunday. With Mathieu Flamini also available again after suspension and Kim Kallstrom having made his first start for the club against West Ham, Wenger even has a few selection dilemmas.
Add the lift those returning players will bring to the confidence that will have been extracted from the win against West Ham, and Arsenal should move one step closer to the Champions League at the KC Stadium.
Prediction: Hull City 1-2 Arsenal
Hull City: Bruce has no fresh fitness worries, with the return of Jelavic and Long likely to be the only changes to the team that beat Sheffield United 5-3 in the FA Cup semifinal last week. Allan McGregor, Robbie Brady, Paul McShane and Joe Dudgeon remain unavailable.
Arsenal: Wenger is hopeful that Ozil and Nacho Monreal will be available on Sunday, although the match will come too soon for Kieran Gibbs. Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott also remain sidelined.
D: Rosenior, Chester, Davies, Figueroa
M: Elmohamdy, Huddlestone, Livermore, Meyler
F: Jelavic, Long
D: Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal
M: Ramsey, Flamini
Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off from the KC Stadium at 9.05 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.