Arsenal must convince they can deliver when it matters at Manchester United
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Southampton vs. Aston Villa
Burnley vs. Stoke
QPR vs. Newcastle
Sunderland vs. Leicester
Tottenham vs. Hull
West Ham vs. Everton
Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace
Swansea vs. Man City
Man Utd vs. Arsenal
West Brom vs. Chelsea
Battle of the Weekend: Man Utd vs. Arsenal
Why won't opposition teams just roll over, expose their soft underbelly and let Arsenal win? Not doing so gives manager Arsene Wenger a sharp tongue in news conferences. Speaking after his side's 1-0 loss at home to Swansea City on Monday night, Wenger said: "We were unlucky I think against a team who refused to play completely and just defended." Except, somehow despite apparently deciding not to cross the halfway line, Swansea scored a goal, and a winning one at that. They also had other opportunities in the match while Arsenal did not really have many to speak of. The absolute cheek of Swansea, eh?
It was a game that played out with a chilling sense of deja vu for the Gunners in recent years, in that they dominated possession but forgot that goals win matches and not passes. Just two weeks ago, Manchester United, Arsenal's opponents on Sunday, endured a similar pattern, as they huffed and puffed against West Brom only for the visitors to take the chance that came their way. But that's football, and it has very little to do with being "unlucky." For example, Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez and then Theo Walcott finding Swans goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski's gloves with shots inside the area was down to misjudgment, not misfortune.
Prior to Monday, Arsenal had been unbeaten in the Premier League since February. They had also mounted a sequence of eight wins in a row, placating Wenger's nonbelievers. But, wait, hasn't this reset button been pressed before? By and large the Gunners have at some stage of a season embarked on a strong run that has eventually wrapped up Champions League qualification -- a feat that now stands at a not-to-be-sniffed-at 17 years on the bounce. Yet for the first time since 2004-05, Wenger's side have been playing for more than finishing above the top-four line and the reward of dressing-room selfies. While the title has been out of reach, the accomplishment of ending the season second has presented itself.
Pressure has crept up on Arsenal and it has subsequently not surprised many that they choked under its grip this week ahead of their trip to Old Trafford. It's certainly easier to churn out victories in the absence of tension, and their slipup has provided United with added incentive to secure a victory that would see them leapfrog their rivals in the table. Going into the contest, Arsenal are in third place, three points behind second-place City and two above United, while they have an inferior goal difference (nine fewer) compared to the former but a superior one (seven more) to the latter. Importantly, they have a game in hand that comes at home to struggling Sunderland.
Finishing above United is important and so is securing the second runners-up berth Arsenal seemed to be in control of. Psychologically, going into the 2015-16 season knowing that you were the club closest to the champions is a genuine fillip (ignoring Liverpool's follow-up campaign of this term, of course). Also, being above your peers not only means something to your fans but also for the evidence of progress, an edge in future meetings, and sure means the offseason is a lot more pleasant. Therefore, Wenger needs his goalkeeper, David Ospina, to be better this weekend and for Danny Welbeck to be fit enough to replace the under-performing Olivier Giroud and face his former club.
As for United, their ending of a three-game losing streak at Crystal Palace has all but assured them of meeting the demand set for manager Louis van Gaal of bringing Champions League football back to Old Trafford. With six points separating United and fifth-placed Liverpool and a goal difference 14 better than Brendan Rodgers' team, it would take something spectacularly funny for the Red Devils to blow it now. United claimed their own smash-and-grab 2-1 win when they met Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in November. The Gunners, though, hit back by knocking Van Gaal's side out of the FA Cup in March, thanks to Welbeck's winner. Now it's United's turn for revenge on Sunday, in what is desperately being billed as the playoff to avoid the Champions League playoffs.
Under pressure: Steve Bruce
Hull City look like they're about to be relegated from the Premier League. For a long time now people have been pointing wildly at their end-of-season run-in, noting they faced a frankly intimidating finish to the campaign that would likely yield no points, and hence they needed to get their wins on the board sooner rather than later. However, after recently beating Crystal Palace, they went and shocked viewers, and possibly themselves, with a triumph over Liverpool. That feat was not repeated at home to Arsenal, but surely they'd come charging back in the most must-win match of them all at the KC Stadium versus soon-to-be demoted Burnley.
Alas, these words from manager Steve Bruce sum up how the result (a 1-0 loss) went: "We looked nervous and got what we deserved. We've not turned up." Hull failed to score and, equally damning, they became the first team Sean Dyche's men had netted against in seven outings. That match was their last on-paper opportunity, because next are Tottenham away and then a visit from United.
Despite being two points from safety and the East Yorkshire skies looking decidedly glum, the ray of light is that Spurs seem to be phoning in their final fixtures, while United may have little to play for. All that said, Bruce and Hull should barely be in this position, considering their £69.59 million spend over the past two years. This plight is not good enough, and whatever the survival outcome, serious questions should be asked at the season's end -- of Bruce and the club's direction.
Finding form: Leicester
Turns out what you say to the media doesn't necessarily impact what happens on the pitch (unless you're Newcastle's John Carver). Because whatever Leicester boss Nigel Pearson is saying to his players when he is not calling a journalist an ostrich, it's ruddy working. As the results show, his charges are playing for him. Six wins from their last seven sees the club top of the form standings, 15th in the table and three points above the drop zone with two rounds of fixtures remaining. Those games are against sides below them, Sunderland and already-down QPR. Pearson said after last week's 2-0 win over Southampton he doesn't know why their form has changed, which isn't entirely helpful for us. Then again, as Pearson has shown this season, he cares not about what people think and only about guiding Leicester to another season in the top flight. And that's fair enough.
- In the FA Cup quarterfinals on March 9, Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford. With a win there on Sunday, Arsenal would be the fourth team ever to win twice at Old Trafford in a single season, and the first since Chelsea in the 2004-05 campaign.
- However, in league play, Man United are unbeaten in seven straight games against Arsenal since their last loss in May 2011. The last time United went eight without defeat vs. the Gunners was between December 2002 and April 2006.
- With his hat trick last weekend, Sergio Aguero took command of the Golden Boot race. His 25 goals are five ahead of Harry Kane entering the weekend and Aguero could be the second straight South American to lead the Premier League in scoring, after Luis Suarez did so last season with 31.
- At the other end of the spectrum, the race is on to avoid being the league's most futile shooter. That honor currently belongs to Man City's Jesus Navas, who has taken 42 shots this season, the most of any player who hasn't scored a goal. Aston Villa's Fabian Delph is second on the list for now with 38 shots, followed by Tom Huddlestone with 37.
- Steven Gerrard has 502 Premier League appearances, which ranks 12th on the all-time list. Should he play in both of Liverpool's remaining matches, he could pass Sol Campbell (503) and crack the top 10, tying Rio Ferdinand with 504 (assuming Ferdinand doesn't play again for QPR this season).
Click here for complete Soccer Power Index projections of the Premier League season.
Any other business: Europa League qualification
What a time to be alive. As the 2014-15 Premier League season reaches its thrilling climax, there's a battle seemingly going on that is leaving its contestants white-knuckled and clammy with fear at the repercussions. Yes, folks, the fight to avoid qualifying for the Champions League's ugly sibling is underway in earnest. And to think we were worried about the final day of the campaign being a nonevent. Indeed, with sixth, and maybe even seventh if Aston Villa don't win the FA Cup, enough to book a place in the Europa League, panic is in the eyes of Tottenham and Southampton. Both sides go into their meetings with Hull and Aston Villa, respectively, having lost their last two matches.
James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.