London: Even those in Arsenal’s “Leave” camp might indulge Arsene Wenger’s chance to tick off missing items in his resume.
Winning the Europa League would end a sorry story in European finals: Wenger holds the unenviable record of defeats in each of the three competitions he has contested.
The League Cup has been almost as cruel, even if Wenger has used the competition as work placement for youngsters. A selection including teenagers Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas was eventually overpowered by a full-bore Chelsea team and a Didier Drogba winner in 2007’s final, and his team were also beaten in 2011. “They are destroyed,” said Wenger after a communication breakdown between keeper Wojciech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny allowed Obafemi Martins to score Birmingham City’s late winner.
Beating Manchester City would bury those ghosts from Wenger’s wilderness period, during which Arsenal went nine years without silverware. And winning at Wembley on Sunday and in Lyon in May might even convince him it is finally time to pull the curtain down.
Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte never really buried the hatchet after their big blow-up earlier in the season and with Manchester United and Chelsea clashing in a crucial showdown after a week when both were involved in taxing Champions League encounters, the managers’ interaction on the Old Trafford touchline should be fascinating. United have been criticised for their pragmatic approach in drawing with Sevilla but Mourinho will not care in the slightest as long as they come through the second leg.
He may be tempted to take the same approach against his opponents on Sunday given Chelsea find themselves three points behind and clinging on to fourth place after a poor run.
In the blue corner, Conte looked like he had rediscovered some of his mojo in the draw with Barcelona on Tuesday and will no doubt relish the opportunity to put one over his predecessor. Whether Eden Hazard makes way for a conventional No. 9 like Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud after being surprisingly handed an advanced role against Barca could determine who is left smiling come Sunday teatime.
Jonny Evans previously occupied a special place in West Brom supporters’ hearts. Many will tell you he is the club’s best player since those late-1970s and early-1980s days when Cyrille Regis, Tony Brown, Laurie Cunningham and Bryan Robson bestrode the Hawthorns.
There have been some fallow times in the Black Country since that era, with West Brom down the divisions, but Evans’s class in possession and positional sense cast him as a thoroughbred, mature and responsible. Then came Barcelona.
Last Saturday’s FA Cup defeat to Southampton saw Evans stripped of the captaincy and barracked by fans in the Smethwick End yet the armband has been returned for Saturday’s home match with Huddersfield. That swift reinstatement would seem endemic of Alan Pardew’s loose, indulgent management style, which has delivered a single Premier League victory in 13 matches, and dropped the Baggies to the bottom of the table.
Pardew is very probably doomed in the near future, while Evans has severe making up to do to those who previously idolised him.
Tottenham, the Premier League’s form side, have collected more points (15) since the turn of the year than anyone else, and Mauricio Pochettino will be hoping they can maintain that as the season reaches its denouement. Spurs have ended the campaign strongly in the last two years, amassing nine successive victories between Christmas and Easter in 2016-17 as they came up short behind Chelsea, and were similarly impressive the previous season.
“I don’t know what it is about this time of year but it’s probably all about how we train,” said Christian Eriksen this week. “We work hard, especially in pre-season and we really pick up this time of year.”
Their recent performances in the victory over Arsenal and the 2-2 draw against Juventus in the first leg of their Champions League tie should add to Tottenham’s swagger in Sunday’s game with Crystal Palace, which has been rearranged from Monday night to accommodate the FA Cup replay against Rochdale — as should the injury-hit Eagles’ run of four matches without victory.
Leicester City v Stoke City (1230)
AFC Bournemouth v Newcastle United (1500)
Brighton & Hove Albion v Swansea City (1500)
Burnley v Southampton (1500)
Liverpool v West Ham United (1500)
West Bromwich Albion v Huddersfield Town (1500)
Watford v Everton (1730)
Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur (1200)
Manchester United v Chelsea (1405)