Is today a must win match for Arsenal against Rennes?
After Arsenal’s stunning 2-0 victory over Manchester United on Sunday, the team now finds itself in control of its own destiny, poised to hold on to a top four place and qualify for the Champions League. Given the shocking disappointment of Thursday’s 3-1 first leg defeat to Rennes in the Europa League, the sudden change of fortunes has seen fan confidence soar this week. According to strength of remaining opponents, Arsenal now face the easiest run of matches to the end of the season of any team vying for the final two places in the top four behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
With Tottenham and Chelsea suddenly finding their form has tapered off in recent weeks, and Manchester United now firmly behind the Gunners after Sunday, the consequences of potentially getting eliminated from European competition by mid-table French side Rennes now don’t seen quite as dire. Given Unai Emery’s track record of success in the Europa League, it was long seen as Arsenal’s best chance at returning to the Champions League next season, but is it still? Should Emery and the players push themselves to overcome the two goal deficit today against Rennes, or would it perhaps be a blessing in disguise if they were to be eliminated at the Emirates Stadium, free to focus all of their efforts on the end of the Premier League season?
If there is one thing we have learned about this Arsenal team and football in general, it is that nothing should be taken for granted. One only has to look at Tottenham, who enjoyed a comfortable nine point cushion in third place after match-week 26, with some even going so far as to label Spurs as title challengers. In just a month’s time, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have fallen off the pace and now find Arsenal hot on their heels, just one point separating the fierce North London rivals.
With eight matches still to play, there is plenty of time for the Gunners to potentially take third place away from Spurs, but they just as easily could fall away again if Emery’s men slip up in one of the supposedly winnable matches left. With away matches at Wolves, Everton, Leicester, Watford and Burnley, the road is far from easy for an Arsenal team that has improved away from home this season, but still struggle to match their consistent performances at the Emirates Stadium.
Aside from allowing the team to maintain its confidence and the positive energy Unai Emery has spoken so much about in recent weeks, a comeback victory over Rennes today would allow the Gunners to reap further financial benefit by ensuring a larger share of the television revenue for the competion, in addition to the match day revenue the club might earn from hosting matches in later rounds. Given the financial constraints dropping into the Europa League has placed on the club this season, any little bit of extra income could be put to good use on the transfer market this summer.
The €510m prize pot to be shared among Europa League competitors may pale in comparison to the €2bn that Champions League clubs will amass, but the Gunners could make up to €10m in prize money alone should they reach the final of the competition, with other factors like market pools (the size of a given club’s television market), coefficient ranking (a club ranking system that takes into account the previous ten seasons and pays “shares” accordingly), and solidarity payments (guaranteed payments for each match played in the competition, increasing as the rounds progress) all adding further to the bottom line.
Not to be forgotten in all of this talk of financial benefit and team confidence is the fact that winning a European trophy, even if it isn’t the coveted Champions League, would be a huge boost for the club. Arsenal have never won the Champions League or the Europa League in their illustrious history. In fact, one has to go all the way back to 1994 to find the last time the Gunners tasted glory on the European stage, where the George Graham led team beat Parma in the Cup Winners Cup Final. Despite many dismissing the Europa League as a second rate competition, winning a European trophy would be a true honour and a sure sign that things are once again moving in a positive direction in North London. That a victory would guarantee a Champions League qualification for next season irrespective of what happens in the Premier League would be the icing on the cake of a very good first season for Unai Emery in England.
A loss not the end of the world?
Should Arsenal ultimately fail to claw back their two goal deficit to Rennes today, all hope will not be lost. Sure, the inevitable banter from rival fans will sting even the most calloused supporter, and the players could suffer a hit to their collective confidence, but the ultimate goal of Champions League qualification will still be alive. At that point, it will be up to the players to take care of business on the pitch and come away with maximum points from the remaining league fixtures. Without a midweek competition to draw their focus, the Gunners could put all of their effort and preparation into each Premier League match, potentially giving them the best chance to maintain their top four place.
With four English clubs already set to move on to the UCL quarterfinals, fatigue and focus could become a factor for all. Manchester City might have little trouble rotating and maintaining their sharpness while balancing both competitions given their incredible wealth and depth, but to a team like Tottenham who is so reliant on a core group of players, the glut of fixtures could well hurt their league form heading into the last months of the season. Tottenham still have to face both Liverpool and Manchester City in their final eight matches, while Manchester United-who are well within striking distance, trailing Arsenal by only two points- also have to face a very tough Wolves side away from home before closing out the season by hosting first place Manchester City at Old Trafford. Dropping points in any of these fixtures could allow the Gunners to cement their place in the top four, helping them to achieve the targets set forth for Emery by the Arsenal board in his first season at the club.