In the next week, Arsenal face a couple of contrasting opponents. First, they make the short trip from their London Colney base to Vicarage Road to face Premier League newcomers Watford. Then, three days later, they fight for their Champions League lives against European giants Bayern Munich.
It would be easy to allow the second of those games to distract from the first. Arsenal stand on the brink of a European exit, and know that the home tie is their best chance of securing anything against a rampant Bayern side.
However, Arsene Wenger is eager for his players to focus fully on the Watford game. Speaking to arsenal.com, he insisted:
“For me the most important game is Watford because the Premier League is the most important competition, with the Champions League. I would say the Premier League is the most important competition for us.”
It certainly is now. A degree of pragmatism is at play here. At the outset of the season, the Premier League and Europe would have been equal priorities for Arsenal. However, the fact they’ve lost their two opening games make success in the Champions League improbable at best. Bayern look certain to top the group, while Olympiacos’ win in London stands them in great stead when it comes to the second qualifying spot. Even securing a result against Munich may not be enough to see Arsenal through to the knockout phase.
By contrast, the Premier League is opening up comparatively nicely for them. After a shaky start, the resounding win over Manchester United has restored belief at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners now sit just two points off leaders Manchester City, who showed on their last trip to north London (a 4-1 defeat at Tottenham) that they are far from infallible. With Chelsea struggling in the lower reaches of the table, Arsenal must sense an opportunity to stake their claim. That can not allow the dream of Europe to distract from the reality of a potential title challenge.
Confidence should be high after what was largely a positive international break for Wenger’s men: nine different Arsenal players scored during the recent qualifiers, and as yet there has been no worrying injury news. The Gunners’ momentum should not be significantly slowed.
Although Watford’s turnover in playing and coaching staff is unconventional, they seem relatively well-equipped for the Premier League. Their defence are well-organising, conceding just three goals in their last six matches at Vicarage Road. At the other end of the pitch, Odion Ighalo has taken to this level like the proverbial duck to water, notching five goals in his eight league starts to date. Any lapse in concentration could be punished by the nippy Nigerian—no player has scored more goals in English football across the calendar year of 2015.
Prior to the international break, we saw both sides of this schizophrenic Arsenal team in the space of a few days. A lax approach against Olympiacos was punished by a 3-2 humbling, but the Gunners then responded with an outstanding performance against to sweep aside United by three goals to nil.
One troubling inference from that week was that Wenger’s men may have underestimated their less celebrated opposition. The same attitude could prove costly against Watford.
Arsenal must banish thoughts of Bayern until they’ve returned from the short trip to Hertfordshire with three more precious points.
In every sense, the league comes first.
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