West Brom-Arsenal Preview
In a season with unexpected title contenders in the Premier League, Arsenal have remained consistent in the worst of ways - they're not one of the aforementioned hopefuls yet they are once more vying for a customary top-four finish.
Though the Gunners must deal with some challenges to their position in the run-in, starting with Thursday's contest versus West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger's 20th season with the London club is pointing to a top-four finish for the 20th time, but it's all but certain to end without a trophy. Only the mathematics of having this match in hand on front-running Leicester City - whom they trail by 13 points with five matches remaining - currently prevent that status from becoming official.
Arsenal's dour spring continued Sunday with a 1-1 draw versus Crystal Palace, a match they controlled for long stretches before Yannick Bolasie beat Petr Cech to his short side from distance on 81 minutes to gain a share of the points. It has the Gunners (17-9-7) in fourth and left them four points ahead of Manchester United, who appear to have finally become a consistent outfit.
"After today, I'm not in that kind of mood to dream about the Premier League title," a still-raw Wenger said post-match. "I'm more in a mood to repair the mental damage and prepare for the next game. ... For us, we need to fight until the end to get the place in the top four. If we can do more, we will do more but let's not dream and focus on the next game."
In a season where critics have their pick of points where Wenger's team failed to measure up, Sunday's result highlighted their uneven play, and they'll be happy to have completed their London derbies.
Arsenal are just 4-6-3 since mid-January and went 1-4-3 versus Palace, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and reigning champions Chelsea to finish with seven of a possible 24 points against fellow capital sides. And with their current eight-point gap to Spurs, it is very likely an already-agitated fan base will not get to celebrate St. Tottenham's Day - the ever-moving "holiday" in which Gunners fans celebrate their mathematical assurance of finishing ahead of the Spurs - for the first time since 1995, predating Wenger's arrival.
And the fans have made their displeasure known, with the team taking the rare step of putting tickets on general sale since many are staying away and West Brom will not use all their allotted 3,000. It is possible Thursday will mark Arsenal's lowest-attended Premier League match since moving from Highbury into Emirates Stadium in 2006.
The gap between title-chasing and top-tier finish - Arsenal are in line to finish third or fourth for the 11th consecutive season - is weighing on star players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Negotiations for contract extensions for both players reportedly have stalled with Arsenal's fate for Champions League next season still very much up in the air.
"I'm responsible for the result and I think I'm the first person who is frustrated," Wenger said. "I can say that at the moment, we will make complete balance at the end of the season and see where we stand. At the moment it is about being together and giving our best until the end of the season."
While Arsenal still have a spot to play for, West Brom (10-10-13) are essentially playing out the string to see where in the middle of the table they'll finish. The Baggies were thwarted in the rarest of ways Saturday, losing 1-0 at home to Watford after Saido Berahino had two second-half penalty kicks saved by Hornets keeper Heurelho Gomes.
Berahino joined Sunderland's Darren Bent - whom Gomes denied twice in a match in 2010 - and Aston Villa's Juan Pablo Angel in 2005 as the only players in the Premier League era to share such a dubious distinction. Manager Tony Pulis is confident his star forward will put it out of sight and out of mind to bounce back for this match.
"To say he's low is an understatement," Pulis told the team's official website. "He's disappointed but that's the way it goes. He has always been my penalty taker. He wanted to take the second once, which shows his confidence.
"And when we get our next penalty I'm sure Saido will be the first player to grab the ball. Strikers miss penalties and chances. The best strikers don't hide and want to go again."
West Brom are winless in their last four (0-1-3) with only one goal in that span. The Baggies have struggled on the road for much of this season, claiming just one victory in their last 11 outside The Hawthorns (1-5-5) after picking up 10 points in their first five road matches.
That form also carries to the Emirates, where Arsenal have won four on the bounce by a combined 10-1 scoreline. The Baggies, however, are seeking their first top-flight double over the Gunners in club history after a 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture Nov. 21.
About everything that could have gone wrong for Arsenal in that match did as both Francis Coquelin and Mikel Arteta left through injuries, with the latter's own goal after misplaying a cross by James McClean on 40 minutes resulting in the final margin. Santi Cazorla squandered an opportunity to rescue a point when he slipped taking his penalty six minutes from time, sending it over the bar.