The Big Match

Judgment day for Wenger

Arsene Wenger is likely to remain as manager of Arsenal next season, to the dismay of many disillusioned Gunners fans.
Arsene Wenger is likely to remain as manager of Arsenal next season, to the dismay of many disillusioned Gunners fans.PHOTO: REUTERS

Stakes high on final weekend with Arsenal one point behind Liverpool in fifth

Arsenal have been here before. They have gone into the final day of the season in fifth, set to lose their uninterrupted streak as Champions League regulars and Arsene Wenger's immaculate record of top-four finishes.

So they may be pleased to see Leighton Baines, part of the Wigan side they beat 4-2 in 2006 on a day when Tottenham lost to West Ham and Wenger pulled off his greatest feat of escapology.

Eleven years later, it seems far-fetched to assume Arsenal's immediate rivals will suffer a bout of food poisoning from lasagne, as Tottenham did then.

Instead, they need to beat Baines' Everton and hope relegated Middlesbrough can halt Liverpool.

The more improbable permutations could include an end-of-season play-off while they can overhaul Manchester City, but Pep Guardiola's men boast a goal difference that is five better.

While Arsenal had concluded a season at home with a 7-0 thrashing of Everton in 2005, a repeat is extremely unlikely.

But this promises to be a historic occasion.

It is unlikely to be Wenger's final league game at the helm, as some of Arsenal's support hope.

Instead, it should bring his lowest finish in England, though not in terms of points. Win and Arsenal will have 75. It will be a record for a fifth-placed team.

It would also mean Arsenal had mustered a fifth straight win and an eighth in nine games. That, besides providing a boost ahead of the FA Cup final, would represent a remarkable recovery from a group whose character was widely questioned.

And yet if there is an inquest - among fans, if not Arsenal powerbrokers - into where their season went wrong, it may start with Everton.

Arsenal were unbeaten in 14 league games when they went to Goodison Park in December.

They took the lead but went down 2-1 - in a game remembered for Mesut Ozil missing a glorious chance and losing Ashley Williams when the defender scored Everton's winner.

It also proved the catalyst for Everton's 2017 revival. Their season, unlike Arsenal's, has offered definite improvement.

It could come at a cost. This is potentially the last game for Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, creator-in-chief and top scorer respectively.

Neither has signed the new contracts offered. Each may want the Champions League football that Arsenal long took for granted.

Everton are guaranteed seventh, seemingly with little to play for, but Ronald Koeman will probably look for a defensively sound game plan, packing the middle of the pitch, perhaps with fresh emphasis on unsettling Arsenal at set pieces.

Chelsea required individual inspiration, courtesy of Pedro Rodriguez, to break the Toffees down. Arsenal may look to another Barcelona alumnus, Alexis Sanchez, for something similar if Everton prove obdurate opponents.

Even that may not be enough. Wenger's destiny rests with relegated Middlesbrough. An all-powerful manager will be powerless tomorrow.

ARSENAL V EVERTON

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Judgment day for Wenger'. Print Edition | Subscribe