It’s a bit of deja vu – we are about to play four matches against very dangerous opponents in a short space of time for the second time this season. This time, those four matches are in just two competitions – the Premiership and the Champions’ League – and our opponents are Everton, Napoli, Manchester City and, after a little break, Chelsea.
At the moment we stand firmly in top spot in both Premiership and our Champions’ League Group F. Both the four-point-advantage in the Premiership and a three-point-advantage in the Champions’ League will be under a huge pressure in the forthcoming period dubbed “The Fortnight of The Living Dead”.
At this point in time, we are four points ahead of Chelsea, six ahead of City and seven ahead of Liverpool and Everton. If Chelsea and/or City beat their respective opponents Stoke and Southampton in their away matches on Saturday, we’ll be under pressure to restore the current margin on Sunday. We face Everton and they have lost just one game this season – against Manchester City away. They have beaten Chelsea at home and Manchester United away and have drawn at home against the Spuds and Liverpool which means they have been a very hard nut to crack. Or a toffee to swallow, if you like.
The good news is that Arsene Wenger managed to afford a rest to Olivier Giroud, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs while Bacary Sagna might return for the clash against the Toffees. If we give a professional display and beat the visitors, we’ll travel to the Etihad Stadium knowing we’ll stay on top regardless of result against the Citizens.
And, any kind of result at the Etihad can happen. We’ll play against the best home team in the league, the one that have beaten all seven opponents on their soil scoring 29 goals and conceding just two in the process. And who are the two opponents that have scored goals at the Etihad in the Premiership? Manchester United (Rooney’s free-kick) and, this shouldn’t be taken for granted, Everton (Romelu Lukaku). The Citizens have been a free-scoring side and their attacking versatility (Nasri, Silva, Jesus Navas, Aguero, Negredo, Džeko…) could have been seen against Norwich when seven goals were scored by seven different players.
Given that Chelsea have an easy (if there is such thing in the Premiership) home game against Crystal Palace, Everton play a disoriented Fulham and Spuds will face Liverpool in the match that might cause a lot of damage to either team in terms of chances to play European football next season, there is a huge possibility that gap between us and the aforementioned teams will be narrowed down. If we, however, win at the Etihad, we will take a major step toward the title. Manchester United and the Spuds have been battered at the Etihad and Chelsea are yet to play there.
And, after the nine-day-break, we’ll host Chelsea. That match might be a crucial one for our entire campaign – if we win, Wenger won’t have a Mourinho-shaped monkey on his back anymore and we will widen the gap between us and the Chavs. If we draw or, in the worst case scenario, lose that game, a lot of questions will be raised again. Manchester City play at Craven Cottage that Saturday and if they win that game as everyone expect, they will peacefully watch our clash against Chelsea on Monday, probably hoping for a draw.
Last season we collected just two points from the forthcoming fixtures and all three teams seem to be stronger than they had been last season. Fortunately, same can be said for us!
Our situation in the Group of Death suggests that we are in a rather good position. We have a three-point-advantage ahead of Napoli and Borussia Dortmund before the last match and only a defeat with a three-or-larger-goal-margin will cost us qualification to the Knockout Stage.
The Italian side have the nosiest crowd in Italy and have played much better at home in their last two campaigns in the Champions’ League than on their travels. They have beaten their previous visitors from England – Manchester City and Chelsea – and European runners-up from last season Borussia Dortmund have also tasted defeat at San Paolo Stadium. Rafa Benitez, a manager who has won the Champions’ League during his career, will try to do his best to out-smart Wenger and beat us. They’ll need a huge margin and that might be a problem for the team that has a comfortable lead and other challenges on their mind (like we’ll be thinking a bit about our trip to Etihad) – there is no space for complacency.
A professional approach has taken us to new heights and we’ll need the very same approach in the forthcoming fixtures to stay there! Tough opponents, fatigue, Walcott’s slow return to the form from last term…are the most dangerous obstacles in the forthcoming period and the ones that we must overcome in order to keep the top spot in both major competitions.
(Next: The Fortnight of The Living Dead Part One – Everton preview)