Arsenal can barely afford another slip-up in their bid for a top-four spot but will likely get a strong challenge Wednesday at Molineux against a Wolverhampton side still with plenty to play for themselves.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Gunners still have a two-track course for Champions League play, having also advanced to the semifinals of the Europa League following their 3-0 aggregate victory over Napoli capped with last Thursday’s 1-0 triumph in Italy. But back in England, Unai Emery’s squad squandered a gilt-edged opportunity to strengthen their hand Sunday with a 3-2 home loss to Crystal Palace.
The loss, coupled with Chelsea’s draw against Burnley on Monday, dropped Arsenal to fifth in the table with four matches remaining, though the Gunners are just one point out of third behind London rivals Tottenham and Chelsea. Arsenal had conceded just one goal the prior seven matches in all competitions but were hit for three at home for the first time since their FA Cup loss to Manchester United in January.
“Today, we lost a very big opportunity but I don’t think it changes our idea,” Emery conceded. “We need to prepare for the next match against Wolverhampton. It’s in our hands because we can continue with the possibility of being in the top four if we win.”
The first-year boss took a calculated gamble by overturning seven players from Thursday’s XI – including starts to Carl Jenkinson and Konstantinos Mavropanos in the back line – but that proved problematic with constant breakdowns. While both were swapped out at halftime, Shkodran Mustafi committed the biggest blunder just after the hour, miscommunicating with keeper Bernd Leno as Wilfried Zaha stormed in for the go-ahead goal.
“We can speak about players individually, but sometimes they can play very well, sometimes cannot play well,” Emery said post-match when specifically asked about Mustafi. “But I prefer to speak about the consistency in the season. I think we are, every player, helping and every player is playing with a big performance and today also, when you can defend against a player like (Christian) Benteke or Zaha, you can suffer more than maybe in other situations.”
Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the Arsenal goals, with the latter moving into a tie for the Premier League lead with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero with 19 and the former ending an eight-game goalless drought.
While Arsenal are fighting for their top-four lives, Wolverhampton continue to struggle to shake off the malaise of squandering a spot in the FA Cup final versus Watford just over a fortnight ago. Wolves (13-9-12) are 10th in the table on 48 points, behind Leicester City on goal difference but only one point back of both Everton and Watford.
They at least got one point from their last match, a scoreless draw versus Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday. Wolverhampton were the better team for most of the 90 minutes and created the better chances but were stymied in the final third. Diogo Jota was particularly unlucky, re-directing a shot by Ruben Neves off the crossbar in first-half stoppage time and striking the woodwork with a shot in the second.
“It was a tough game, I think we had a lot of moments, we had a good game, good combinations, a lot of intensity. It’s not easy to break a team that is so, so well organised in the box, not allowing any spaces,” Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo told the club’s official website.
“We tried with wide areas, with combinations, and we had many chances. The intensity was there, the balance was there, it’s not easy to finish an action and get the ball again, and we didn’t allow anything to Brighton. I’m proud of the boys, proud of the fans, today. We hit the ball two times on the wood, many, many chances, but it was not our day and let’s be prepared for the next one.”
Wolverhampton are unbeaten in their last six league matches (4-2-0) at Molineux, recording three clean sheets in that stretch. They also scored 12 goals in the five contests that preceded Saturday’s draw.
Raul Jimenez, whose 16 goals in all competitions are double more than the second-highest scorer on Wolves, has gone four league matches without scoring. Jimenez, though, did assist on Ivan Cavaleiro’s goal in the 13th minute of the reverse fixture at the Emirates, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan salvaged a point for the Gunners with an equaliser four minutes from time. It was just Wolverhampton’s second point in nine Premier League matches versus Arsenal and extended a winless run in all competitions between the sides to 20 (0-4-16) since a 3-2 League One win at Highbury in September 1979.
Wolves have not beaten Arsenal at Molineux since a 1-0 triumph in October 1978, going 0-1-8 since.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 0, Arsenal 1.
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(Unai Emery photo courtesy Arsenal FC official Twitter account)
(Diogo Jota and Nuno Espirito Santo photos courtesy Wolves official Twitter account)