As Arsenal players began to assemble for a penalty shootout against Sporting CP at the Emirates, former Gunners defender Martin Keown whispered a hopeful prediction to viewers watching in the UK.
“Winning this could just give them the belief they need to go on to success this season,” he said.
You could see what the ex-Arsenal star was driving at, being able to ultimately overcome a stubborn Sporting CP side who’d frustrated them for 120 minutes would provide more evidence of the team’s mental fortitude.
ded to last-gasp victories against Aston Villa, Fulham and, most dramatically, Bournemouth and it would form a strong body of evidence that the Gunners team this year is simply unwilling to accept anything less than victory when it matters.
Things were all going to plan up until the fourth penalty. Gabriel Martinelli, so composed during the game itself, stepped up and then inexplicably planted a weak shot against the palms of Sporting CP goalkeeper Antonio an.
Moments later Miguel Nuno Santos whipped a left-footed effort into the side netting of Aaron Ramsdale’s net and the game, by the narrowest of margins, was done.
Analyzing the consequences of the defeat post-game Keown performed something of a 180 turn was this in fact“a blessing in disguise” he pondered.
As he continued to consider the bigger picture his conviction hardened, “Arsenal will be a lot happier not playing on a Thursday,” he added.
Speaking after the game captain Martin Odegaard was also keen to look beyond the game itself.
“I think we did enough in some periods of the game but most of the game we weren’t on the level we should be. We didn’t play our best football. It was a tight game in the end, it could have gone both ways,” he told broadcasters post-game.
“We have to remember it’s been a great season, it’s a big blow to go out of this competition. But now we look forward to the league, that’s all we can do now. We win and lose together. It doesn’t matter. When we’re winning everyone is happy, when we lose we have to pick up the spirit.”
The Norwegian international wasn’t willing to go as far as Keown, but his subsequent statements certainly echoed the former defender’s sentiment.
“We have 11 finals to go and that’s it, that’s the main focus now. It starts already now in the dressing room to recover well and change the focus, so that’s what we have to do,” Odegaard added.
“I guess some players are tired. The ones who played the whole game of course, but we’re going to recover well and make sure we come sharp for Sunday, that’s the only thing we can do now. We wanted to do something special in this tournament and so we’re disappointed. It’s done now, we can’t think too much about it, we have to move forward.”
In other words; it’s the Premier League or nothing.
Focus or pressure
It’s a well-worn cliche about the Premier League that there are no easy games and whilst it might not be entirely true, there is certainly evidence that not having to travel around Europe midweek can benefit a title tilt.
Both Chelsea and Leicester City have won championships against rivals who’ve been distracted at various points by efforts to succeed in Europe.
The interesting thing about this season is Arsenal’s title run-in features far more teams with something at stake than in previous years.
Unlike last season there are no teams cut adrift at the foot of the table, a mere 5 points separate bottom side Southampton from Crystal Palace in 12th position.
This means, with just over ten games remaining, almost half the division is under threat of relegation.
A demonstration of how seriously the clubs in mid-table were taking this predicament was provided by the aforementioned Crystal Palace who fired coach Patrick Viera to secure the team’s future in the division.
In fact, of Arsenal’s remaining games only a handful look like being contested against teams with nothing but pride to play for.
Opponents will either be needing vital points for survival or to help secure a more ambitious goal like European qualification.
It means the “11 finals” Odegaard described Arsenal facing will predominantly be against teams in many cases who view them in that way too.
The pressure on these games will be immense with both sides battling for different but equally critical goals.
Whether that is positive or negative for the Gunners is the big question to be answered.
Arsenal can at least rest safe in the knowledge that rivals Manchester City face the same challenge of facing sides with a lot at stake.
The Gunners know the pressure will all be on the weekend game, there will be no distraction, whether that is liberating or adds to the strain is yet to be seen.
Rivals City faces the opposite challenge. A tough Champions League draw will add a minimum of two and a maximum of four intensely difficult games to the schedule, in addition to the title run-in.