The final international break of the season over. This is it - the home stretch. 10 Premier League matches separate Arsenal from their first title in nearly two decades, and every Arsenal fan has been brimming with excitement and optimism – some apprehensively, others unabashedly. The Gunners return from international duty largely intact, with a few minor knocks picked up along the way. But with no auxilary campaigns left, Arsenal are all in on the run-in.
Although the Gunners hold a robust 8 point lead over 2nd placed Manchester City, the final two months are not going to come easy. Dates at Anfield, the Etihad, and St. James Park loom as make-or-break away trips for the Gunners. But Arsenal also face a litany of teams in the bottom half who will be fighting for their Premier League lives over the last two months of the season. 4 points separate 12th place from 20th, which means that safety is far from guaranteed for a large amount of clubs.
The first match back features one of those bottom-half combatants as Leeds United comes to the Emirates with three points in mind. Sitting in 14th on 26 points, Leeds have been a more successful side ever since Jesse March was replaced by Javi Garcia in February. While the improvement has not been by leaps and bounds, it has been consistent. Since Garcia’s hiring, Leeds have gone 2-1-1, with victories over fellow relegation candidates Southampton and Wolverhampton.
But Mikel Arteta will hopefully know better than to overlook the visitors. The reverse fixture at Elland Road in October was one of Arsenal’s worst showings all season. Even though the Gunners escaped that fixture with a nervy 1-0 win, the hosts were by far the better side on the day, imposing themselves on the league leaders with relentless pressure and pace for days. If not for Patrick Bamford missing a penalty and VAR preventing another in stoppage, Arsenal could have suffered a far worse fate that day.
The biggest hurdle of the international break was the ever-present injury issue. Leeds, like some, were unable to avoid the injury but, entering the match with a few key pieces missing, as Tyler Adams and the talented attacker Wilfred Gnonto both set to miss the clash. Arsenal, though, will continue to miss William Saliba, whose back injury sustained before Crystal Palace has yet to be resolved. Coupled with the loss of Takehiro Tomiyasu for the season, that is a second blow to the Gunners’ back line, whose depth is facing the test of its life as the season wraps up.
Thankfully, though, Arsenal’s attack are back and ready for the run-in. Bukayo Saka continued his incredible season with a MOTM performance for England, while Leandro Trossard continued his stellar link-up play, notching an assist for Belgium. Thankfully, Martin Ødegaard avoided injury after a reckless tackle by Rodri. If the attackers can pick up where they left off, the defense will be able to have a little extra breathing room.
For more on lineups and match predictions, go ahead and check out Nathan’s post.
Does this match fall under the category of trap game? I suppose, if you think about it in the traditional sense. A scrappy, fast team fighting for their safety? A top side locked into a title hunt? We’ve seen that film play out before. Davids prefer their Goliaths with eyes elsewhere, and if Arsenal are not painfully aware of that by now, then that’s a failing on their part.
Arteta and the players have been hammering home the idea of 10 Cup Finals ahead of the final ten matches, and with that has come a pronounced focus. Resounding victories against Everton, Fulham, and Crystal Palace before the break showed a lethal Arsenal that stepped on the gas and never looked back. The comeback against Bournemouth, for all of it’s stoppage-time elation, was the reminder that nothing is a given in the PL, and Leeds will be ready to take a swing at the league leaders and take them down a peg, especially after how close they came to it in October.
Arsenal lead the race. The 8 point cushion over City is by no means a death knell to the competition – not when Pep’s death machine are capable of going on absurd tears at a moment’s notice. But the final run-in for Arsenal is going to be a mark of Arteta and co’s prowess and mettle, no one else’s.
10 cup finals to play. 9 wins secures the title. A win on Saturday, and the magic number is 8. Get after it, lads.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Leeds United
WHEN: Saturday, April 1st, 10:00am EST/7:00am PST/3:00pm BST
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast live on The USA Network. Streaming on NBCSports.com
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