Arsenal had the chance to keep pace with the Premier League leaders on Saturday, but to do so they had to win away to Stoke. Since their promotion to the top flight of football Stoke have made things difficult for Arsenal on their home patch and it was never going to be an easy task for Arsenal to win. If Arsenal were going to win they had to be at their very best and I hoped the break of one week before the game would be what the players needed to recharge their batteries.
For some strange reason though the Arsenal players failed to bring the tempo and attitude needed to win any game in the Premier League. Not for the first time this season they started the game slowly with no real tempo to their game. I don't know if it's just me who thinks so, but it's certainly not the first time this season that the attitude has been all wrong after a break of a week between games.
The players have had a very busy schedule this season and over the last few weeks in particular and it was hoped the week between games with be an opportunity for them to put that energy sapping spell behind them. Judging by their performance on Saturdsy it had the opposite effect as the team showed no urgency at all until they went behind. The penalty Stoke were awarded was a joke, but surely that shouldn't have been the catalyst the players needed as the three points on offer were of vital importance in the title race.
I was concerned when I saw the team picked to play Sunderland the previous week, but Arsenal went out and won 4-1 at a canter. I thought the team lacked width and attacking pace, but it didn't matter as they strolled to victory. Arsene Wenger picked the very same team to play Stoke with the exception of Kieran Gibbs coming in at left back for the injured Nacho Monreal.
Against Stoke the lack of pace and width was blatantly obvious as Arsenal failed to create almost anything in attack. It wasn't until Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on just before Stoke scored that Arsenal began to show a genuine threat in attack. He used his pace and ability to get behind the Stoke defence and created chances for both Olivier Giroud and fellow substitute Yaya Sanogo. The best of those chances could have saved a point for Arsenal in the dying moments, but Sanogo blazed over the bar when well positioned.
Much has been made of Laurent Koscielny again being the man to give away the penalty, but there was little he could do as the ball clearly struck his hand from no more than a yard away. How the referee could judge that as deliberate handball is anybody's guess and the linesman certainly didn't raise his flag to indicate a penalty. Even without the penalty Arsenal would only have taken a point though when three points were an absolute must.
With four really tough league games coming up against Spurs, Chelsea, City and Everton the three points on offer in the Stoke game were given up too easily. It will be an awful lot harder to gain points from those four games and every single point is so important at the moment. There are only 10 league games left this season and Arsenal have four points to make up on Chelsea and that doesn't even take City or Liverpool into account.
Before they get to those four league games there's the small matter of an FA Cup quarter final against Everton and a Champions League last 16 second leg away to Bayern Munich. As it stands the FA Cup would seem to be Arsenal's best chance of a trophy this season and the game against Everton takes on huge significance. With a two goal deficit to overcome away to Bayern the chances of making the last eight are very slim, but an FA cup semi final appearance is only one home game away.
Unfortunately there are midweek international friendlies this week and almost all of the Arsenal squad will be away with their countries playing games on Wednesday night. What state they will be in when they return is anybody's guess, but hopefully they will be ready to play what could be their biggest game for Arsenal so far this season. They will have to play an awful lot better against Everton than they did against Stoke to progress to the semi-finals.
If the team can overcome Everton and then go to Spurs and win a week later then I think a top four place will be secured and an FA Cup final spot will be a very real possibility. If they don't win those two games the rest of the season could be a real struggle and the season has reached a stage where there is no more room for mistakes. There can be no more inept performances where the team hope to coast through a game and nick it with a late goal.
Of course the players missing through injury are having an effect on the team at the moment and there's no doubt the team would be a lot better with Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey in it. Ramsey should be back soon but Walcott won't play again this season and the lack of action in the transfer window is looking like a fatal mistake right now. Maybe the right players weren't available but as it stands Arsenal's attacking options don't look as good as City and Liverpool in particular and Chelsea look stronger than them in defence.
Even if they can put Spurs behind them Liverpool have got back into the title race and there's a real possibility of Arsenal finishing fourth again. For me if they don't win the league they have to finish in the top three to show some progress and another trip to the Champions League qualifiers is hardly progress. I'd love to say I'm confident of a top three finish, but two wins in their last six league games has severely dented that confidence with so many crunch games coming up.
So far this season Arsenal have performed badly in their crunch league games away from home in particular and it doesn't auger well for the trips to Spurs, Chelsea and City. Until recently Arsenal's away form had been good with eight wins in 11 games, but they have taken only one point from their last three away games. There has to be a huge change in the team's away performances from here on in to save their season.
I haven't given up all hope of Arsenal winning the league quite yet, but it's getting very close to the stage where they won't be able to win it. The players need to raise their game against every single team they play from here on in or their season will be over very soon. After such a promising season so far that would be an awful shame and I hope it doesn't go that way, but it's a very real possibility.
That's it for today.
See you tomorrow.