Arsenal have spent more time than any other team at the Premier League summit this season, yet they will not be involved in the battle for the title on the final day of the season and are instead all-but guaranteed of finishing in fourth spot. It is a bitter-sweet scenario for Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger.
“The difference between us and the team who wins the league will be down to a maximum of seven points if we win our last game,” he said, according to the club’s official website. “We have been 128 days on top of the league so we won the stamina league, but we failed in some big games away from home.
“To be completely honest, a team like City scored 100 goals so you have to say their offensive potential has been absolutely brutal and fantastic. Liverpool as well. We have scored 66 at the moment, so that is certainly where we have room for improvement.”
It is easy to look back at the January transfer window and the failure to sign a striker to support Olivier Giroud as the defining moment that led to Arsenal’s fall from contention. But, not for the first time, injuries have also played a pivotal part in the club’s season. Arsenal’s dip in form post-Christmas came without the crucial pace and dynamism, not to mention goal-scoring ability, of Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. It is no coincidence that it was when Ramsey returned to fitness that Arsenal picked up form and went on their current run of four-straight wins that has allowed them to overhaul Everton for that precious final Champions League place.
For the trip to take on Norwich City on Sunday, Arsenal are set to welcome back another player capable of injecting some pace into the attack. Jack Wilshere has been out for two months with a fractured bone in his left foot but could well get some important minutes at Carrow Road ahead of the FA Cup final next week and World Cup this summer. And he will have fond memories of Sunday’s opponents, having scored one of the goals of the season against Norwich earlier in the season after a mesmerizingly quick exchange of passes on the edge of the box. It was that kind of attacking spark which was missing for too much of the season for Arsenal.
Norwich know all about lacking vitality going forward. Despite the signings of Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander last summer, Norwich are the lowest scorers in the Premier League this season with a pitiful 28 goals in 37 matches. Combine that with the league’s third-worst defensive record and it is no surprise that Norwich are heading for the Championship. While their fate technically remains undecided, it would take a preposterous 17-goal swing between them and fourth bottom West Brom for Norwich to avoid the drop. It simply isn’t going to happen.
It is hard not to think that Norwich have been undone by their board’s lack of decisiveness in dispensing with manager Chris Hughton. The likeable former Newcastle manager repeatedly secured a result when his job was on the line, yet the football played throughout the season has been desperately uninspiring. When the club did finally act it was too late and they were left to turn to youth-team coach Neil Adams.
With their last four matches coming against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, Adams’ first match in charge, against Fulham, was always likely to prove decisive. They lost, and, despite an admirable performance in securing a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge a week ago, they are heading down.
They are doing so with unsurprising disharmony in the camp as well. After the match with Chelsea, Argentinean winger Jonas Gutierrez tweeted “Sad to see a not experience (sic) manager in charge.” Teammate Luciano Becchio appeared to tweet a response in agreement with the sentiment. Both have hardly played and it is difficult to imagine them doing so on Sunday in what looks likely to be another victory for an in-form and almost fully healthy Arsenal side.
Arsenal: Wenger is hopeful of having both Wilshere and Ramsey in the squad, while Kieran Gibbs has also returned to fitness. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remains sidelined.
Norwich: Anthony Pilkington and on-loan defender Joseph Yobo are set to miss out on the season finale.
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off at 10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by MSNBC, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.