Arsenal top four fight goes to final day - thanks to Sanchez

Chilean striker scores twice as the Gunners wear down relegated Sunderland at a subdued Emirates

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal
Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez is wanted by a number of Premier League clubs 
(Image credit: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Arsenal 2 Sunderland 0

Where would Arsenal be without Alexis Sanchez? Mid-table most likely, and certainly nowhere near securing a place in next season's Champions League. As it is, two more goals from their Chilean striker finally broke the resistance of a spirited Sunderland side and ensured the fight for a top four finish will go down to the wire on Sunday.

With Manchester City brushing aside West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday evening to leapfrog Liverpool into third place, Arsenal are fifth, a point behind the Reds who have a marginally superior goal difference over their north London rivals.

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So what it boils down to on Sunday afternoon is really quite simple: Arsenal must beat Everton at the Emirates and hope that Liverpool fail to beat relegated Middlesbrough at Anfield.

The chances of that appear slim, given that Boro's only points on the road in 2017 came from 0-0 draws with Swansea and Watford and the last time they won y from home was at Sunderland in August.

So it looks like the Europa League for Arsenal next season which is what they deserve after a season of rank mediocrity. That's the best description for much of what unfolded at a passive Emirates on Tuesday evening, the rows of empty seats bearing mute testimony to the apathy many fans feel for Arsene Wenger and his side.

In total Arsenal had 36 attempts at goal - their highest number in a Premier League game since 2003 - but they found the net only twice, first when Sanchez prodded home Mesut Ozil's pass on 72 minutes and then a short while later when the South American converted a cutback from Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal would have had more but for heroics of Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford who, judging by his form between the posts, won't be short of offers to stay in the Premier League next season.

At the other end, Petr Cech was called into action during a first-half when Arsenal were stretched at back on several occasions. Cech saved well from Jermain Defoe and Didier Ndong and shortly after the restart the Arsenal keeper had to be on his toes to prevent Nacho Monreal putting into his own net with a shocker of a backpass.

"We had plenty of shots on goal but we needed to be patient," said Wenger. "It took us a while to get into our rhythm. In the second half, in the last 25 or 30 minutes, it happened."

Asked about the poor attendance at the Emirates, Wenger said he "didn’t count the number of people who were in the seats" and nor is he counting out Arsenal's chances of finishing in the top four come Sunday evening.

"You never know," he said, when asked about the possibility and took a swipe at those who used to mock the Gunners for always finishing fourth. "I answer for 20 years the question: 'Is the top four nothing special?' I don’t know why, suddenly, it could become such a big problem [not to finish in the top four].

"I am quite surprised. I want to make sure, absolutely, that we are in there but let’s get to 75 points and see what happens. You want all the teams to fight like Sunderland did tonight and, after, you have to accept the result."

Arsenal charge continues, but top four still out of reach

11 May

Southampton 0 Arsenal 2

Arsenal moved up into fifth in the Premier League with a vital victory over Southampton, their first league win at St Mary's since 2003, which came thanks to second-half goals from Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud.

The Gunners are now one point above Manchester United and three behind Manchester City in fourth. Liverpool, who are third, are four points ahead of Arsenal but have played a game more.

It all makes for a tense run-in between now and the final round of matches on Saturday week with Arsenal's chances of securing their 21st consecutive top four finish out of their hands.

The most challenging fixture of their three remaining games is Saturday's trip to Stoke, while 24 hours later Liverpool head south to play West Ham. The outcome of those two matches is likely to have a crucial bearing on who qualifies for next season's Champions League.

All Arsenal can do is keep winning and with four victories in their last five league matches they are enjoying their usual strong finish to the season. Had it not been for their customary collapse in early spring, when they lost four out of five league matches, they might have been challenging Chelsea for the title.

But that's the club Arsenal have become under Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, incapable of maintaining consistency and prone to periods of rank mediocrity.

That description can't be applied to Sanchez, however, and his goals have kept the Gunners in the hunt for a Champions League place. The Chilean scored his 20th at St Mary's, his best tally for a season in Europe, while Giroud's header was his sixth as a substitute.

Sanchez's goal was a wonderful effort, the South American selling two Saints a dummy to create the space for his shot, but it shouldn't mask what up until then had been another lacklustre display from the visitors. There wasn't much urgency from either side in a tedious first-half and it was only after Sanchez's goal on the hour mark that Arsenal began to believe a win was possible.

"The first half was quite even but we were focused, determined, maintained the pace and in the second half we found space to create chances and finish the game off," said Wenger. "You couldn't be disappointed from the goalkeeper to Danny Welbeck, everybody played well."

Nonetheless the fact remains that Arsenal, despite their return to winning ways, haven't improved much as a team in recent weeks. They beat the mid-table teams, and a second-string Manchester United, but were comfortably beaten by Tottenham.

The fear among those Arsenal fans who want Wenger out is that the Frenchman will use the strong finish to the season as evidence he's turned the team around. He hasn't, however, he's just beating tired teams who have little to play for at the end of a long season. If Wenger stays then Arsenal will be condemned to another season of underachievement in 2017-18.

"We went through a bad patch," said Wenger, reflecting on results in February and March. "It's a good opportunity to show your character, how you come back and how you recover from that… but let's not jump too quickly to conclusions and, instead, focus and give everything at Stoke on Saturday."

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