London (AFP) – Arsene Wenger will be praying for an unexpected slip from Liverpool or Manchester City as Arsenal try to salvage their traumatic Premier League campaign by snatching a Champions League berth in Sunday’s season finale.
Rocked by Arsenal’s failure to live up to his expectations and battered by mounting criticism from furious fans, Wenger has been under fire like never before in his 21-year reign — and the lowest moment of all is likely to come at the Emirates Stadium this weekend.
As if finishing below arch rivals Tottenham for the first time in 22 years wasn’t bad enough, Wenger’s bid to lead Arsenal into the Champions League for a 20th successive season is in grave danger heading into their last league game against Everton.
With the title race settled in Chelsea’s favour, Tottenham guaranteed to finish second and the three relegation places filled by Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull, it is the battle for the lucrative remaining two places in Europe’s elite club competition that will command the attention on Sunday.
Despite winning six of their last seven games, Arsenal are in fifth place, one point behind fourth placed Liverpool and three adrift of third placed City.
If Liverpool beat relegated Middlesbrough at Anfield and City avoid defeat at struggling Watford, then, even if Arsenal win, Wenger’s side will be consigned to the indignity of Thursday nights in the unglamourous Europa League next term.
Having refused to confirm if he will accept Arsenal’s offer of a new contract, Wenger this week said his will be settled when he meets the club’s powerbrokers after the Gunners’ FA Cup final date with Chelsea on May 27.
Reports suggest Wenger is planning to stay and if that is the case the 67-year-old could do with boosting his plunging approval ratings by somehow gate-crashing the Champions League party.
Asked on Friday if the Everton clash will be his last game in charge of Arsenal at the Emirates, he gave a sarcastic response.
“Of the season…yes,” he said. “I think what is the most important for us is to win the football game we play on Sunday.
“After that, what happens to me is less important. I’m here to serve the club and the best way to do that is to win the next game.”
Meanwhile, a fourth successive City victory will see them hold on to third place and go straight into next season’s Champions League, while a draw would also be enough to ensure a top four finish.
- ‘In our hands’ –
However, City could still miss out altogether if they lose, Liverpool defeat Middlesbrough and Arsenal improve their goal difference by at least five in the process of beating Everton.
Calling for one last push after an underwhelming first season in charge, City boss Pep Guardiola said: “We still have 95, 96 minutes to fight to do one thing that’s so important for the club and the future.
“It’s a crucial game for us. It’s a final. Every game has pressure, but it’s in our hands.
“It doesn’t depend on Arsenal or Liverpool. It depends on us. We have to go there and win the game.”
Liverpool will compete in the Champions League for the first time since 2014-15, and only the second time in eight years, as long as they match Arsenal’s result.
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp is well aware the subsequent boost to Liverpool’s profile would be a major help in signing his top transfer targets.
“The Champions League, for different reasons, is a wonderful competition. It would be the icing on the cake,” Klopp said.
“It is important for players because that is what they want to play in.
“We will be successful in the future but for this we need the players, of course. We have very good players and we need a few more.”
Already certain to finish sixth, Manchester United will send out a team largely comprised of youth team players as boss Jose Mourinho keeps his senior stars fresh for next week’s Europa League final against Ajax.
If United win the Europa League they will claim a place in the Champions League, giving Mourinho the last laugh while his old rival Wenger faces a troubled future.
Fixtures (all 1400 GMT)
Arsenal v Everton, Burnley v West Ham, Chelsea v Sunderland, Hull v Tottenham, Leicester v Bournemouth, Liverpool v Middlesbrough, Manchester United v Crystal Palace, Southampton v Stoke, Swansea v West Brom, Watford v Manchester City
<figure><figcaption>Arsene Wenger's bid to lead Arsenal into the Champions League for a 20th successive season is in grave danger heading into their last league game against Everton <span>Copyright AFP/File Adrian DENNIS</span> </figcaption></figure>