With the last kick of the penalty shoot-out loss to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League on Thursday, Arsenal’s quest for their first elusive European trophy was forced to wait another season. The bitter taste from the loss remains fresh, but as the dust of the loss clears, the silver linings have begun to appear.
Unlike previous seasons at this stage, this one is not yet a wash. Arsenal, for all of their shortcomings in cup ties, have steadily chugged along in the Premier League, holding firmly to the top spot for nearly the entire season. The loss at home to Sporting was equal parts wake-up call, equal parts relief. As players limped off the pitch after over 120 minutes of action, the knowledge that they were going to have a lighter workload following the break was, at the very least, a consolation prize.
But all of this also means that this is it. The Premier League title or bust. Dare I say…all or nothing. The 11 matches that remain all have added weight. The margin for excuses and poor play are non-existent now. The Gunners saved their legs the extra wear and tear of Europa League. But after the international break, it is full speed ahead towards a finish line that has eluded them for nearly two decades.
Before the Gunners disperse for their various national team call-ups, they host Crystal Palace at the Emirates in what could be a tough fixture for the hosts.
Palace’s season has taken a powerful nosedive since the end of 2022, one that raised questions about manager and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira’s abilities. The Eagles last notched a win in November, a 2-1 victory against West Ham. Since then, they have managed a frustrating string of losses and draws. While that is far from ideal, it’s been a tad deceptive. The last stretch of ten matches saw them play the likes of Manchester United twice, Newcastle, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool, with draws from three and losses by one goal in the other three. Not a stellar return, but far from a catastrophe.
But managers are rarely rewarded for draws and losses, and as luck (or a lack thereof) would have it, Palace made the slightly confusing decision to sack Vieira on Friday, just two days ahead of a critical London Derby for both clubs. Why they decided against letting him play out the last match before the break is unclear, but now Arsenal face the prospect of facing yet another new manager - or, in this case, caretaker manager.
Because the short turnaround means that Palace have had no time to vet and hire a proper manager, they have given manager duties to U21 and former club captain Paddy McCarthy for Sunday’s affair. Whether or not this is a “tryout” for the job, Arsenal’s first team inexperience with McCarthy’s style of management presents a potentially problematic wrinkle.
Palace have been good enough to give teams a real run for their money, but have struggled in front of goal this season. The club is in 12th, but their 27 points are only three points above 18th placed Bournemouth. A loss to Arsenal and a win from any of the teams below could see them drop into the 13-16 range, further compounding their poor form ahead of the final two months.
Historically, despite a 30-16-6 record against Palace, the most surprising statistic is one that the Gunners cannot let continue. Arsenal have been winless against Crystal Palace at the Emirates since January 2018. The Gunners opening match of the season was a 2-0 win at Selhurst Park, and they will be desperate to do the double against their cross-town opponents.
If McCarthy, who played for Palace for eight seasons, can get a game plan in place that Arsenal aren’t prepared for, they could catch the Gunners potentially still reeling from their emotional and physical match on Thursday. Bournemouth’s punchy performance happened only two weeks ago, which saw Arsenal caught out twice before the hosts produced a comeback for the ages. Palace will no doubt look to recreate that success if they can help it.
Arsenal, despite injuries to Takehiro Tomiyasu and William Saliba, will have their core of players available barring any training set backs on Saturday. The decision to keep the likes of Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka, and Thomas Partey on the bench until late in the match on Thursday means they should be more than ready for Sunday. Gabriel Jesus’ first half appearance was promising, as he looked his sharp and tricky self. Emile Smith Rowe’s lack of game time has been concerning, but he will be fresh for Sunday after not featuring on Thursday.
More importantly, with no other competitions left, Mikel Arteta will look to play his strongest available side as often as possible. As much as that means we have likely seen the last of players like Matt Turner, Jakub Kiwior, Rob Holding, and Kieran Tierney for the season, the title is too important to risk it.
For further discussions about potential lineups and score predictions, make sure to check out Nathan’s post.
In the shadow of Arsenal’s now less-congested fixture list, many fans have pointed at the heavy schedule for Manchester City, who are still alive in the FA Cup and will face German titans Bayern Munich in the next round of the Champions League. It is a fool’s errand, though, to assume they will be strained by the added matches. They have been built to endure that, as they have successfully done for the last several seasons. The fact remains that Arsenal cannot hope for any help by other teams losing steam or slipping up. They are the ones who control their fate. No one else.
11 cup finals to go for the Gunners. 10 wins gets them a title. A win on Sunday, and the magic number becomes 9. Just win.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Crystal Palace
WHEN: Sunday, March 19th, 10:00am EST/7:00am PST/2:00pm BST
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Airing live on the USA Network. Streaming on NBCSports.com
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