Arsenal’s title bid stalled as Champions League offers redemption

LONDON — Arsenal have a week to prove they aren’t April fools. For the second year in succession, the Gunners entered this month targeting glory at home and abroad.

But Sunday’s 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa leaves Mikel Arteta’s side facing a week to save their season, and the Spaniard knows it. With trips to Bayern Munich and Wolverhampton Wanderers to come in the next six days, an apocalyptic scenario could see Arsenal’s season suddenly fizzle out.

“If one result is going to do that then we are not strong enough,” Arteta said. “That’s very simple. “We don’t have any other solution. If you want to win championships, if you want to be there in the Champions League, when you have these moments you have to stand up. If not that means that you don’t have a quality that is very necessary. Now it’s a big test for us.”

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The symmetry with last season is of significant concern. It is precisely a year ago since Arsenal were embarking on a run of three wins from their final nine league games which handed the title to Manchester City and once again Pep Guardiola’s charges are in pole position at the end of a weekend when both their main rivals lost at home.

Villa were excellent here, limiting the home side to just four shots in the second half as their bravery in possession, high defensive line and willingness to commit players forward rocked the home side back. They played with a poise and conviction that Arsenal need to display in a title race of such fine margins.

The Gunners wasted good early opportunities. Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka both hit the side netting as Martin Odegaard glided in between the lines with eye-catching ease. Yet the stability provided by the Gabriel/William Saliba center-back partnership in recent weeks was lacking as the former gifted Ollie Watkins a chance to remind Arsenal of the threat Villa posed, striking the inside of the post with a 39th-minute shot which spread doubt throughout Arteta’s side.

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Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez saved brilliantly from Leandro Trossard a minute later before Saka curled an effort just wide but after the break, Villa asserted an impressive level of authority on proceedings. Substitute Leon Bailey struck with six minutes remaining before Watkins lifted a brilliant finish over David Raya as the Gunners were caught on the counter-attack while chasing the game.

Meanwhile, Man City’s relentless and proven consistency at this stage of the season makes every defeat feel like a disaster. Similarly, Arsenal’s faltering steps of 12 months ago once again leaves them vulnerable to the accusation that they cannot execute their best performances under maximum pressure.

Improvements appeared to have been made in that regard. The character, experience and resolve of Declan Rice and Kai Havertz has given Arsenal a different feel for a lot of this season. But now is the time when that question will be asked loudest.

Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal tie is finely poised at 2-2 from the first leg. In the Premier League, Wolves beat City and Tottenham at home earlier this season and will enjoy a clear week to prepare for Saturday night under the lights at Molineux.

Belief is absolutely paramount to reversing the momentum that their season could be slipping away from them. Arteta did his best to sound defiant when it was put to him that City have the title in their hands once again.

“When you look at the schedule, the games we have to play every three days, it’s crazy,” Arteta said. “So [dropping points] can happen to any team. It’s happened in the past. We cannot control that all.

“We can control how we’re going to be now. Prepare from tomorrow to give us the best chance to go to Munich with big belief and win the game to go into the semifinals.”

Villa manager Unai Emery would never admit it publicly, but he will have enjoyed another victory over his former employers, one which he finally admitted makes Villa “contenders” for Champions League qualification with five games to play.

Emery’s success at Villa should not mask the mess he left for Arteta at Arsenal in the same way this result cannot hide the dramatic progress Arteta has overseen. But some of his recent decisions are perhaps questionable.

Starting Jakub Kiwior and leaving Jesus on the bench against Bayern felt like mistakes. Here, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Trossard did not justify their inclusion and Gabriel Martinelli was once again disappointing when introduced late on. Withdrawing his captain, Odegaard, with 11 minutes to go was a surprise. Arteta insisted afterwards he “felt something” and could not continue, but Odegaard told Norwegian broadcasters after the game he was not significantly injured.

These are minor quibbles any manager faces when results don’t go their way, and now is Arsenal’s time to respond.

“After losing any game the players are frustrated and sad,” Arteta said. “But we have a beautiful opportunity that hasn’t happened for 14 years in this club to go to the semifinals of the Champions League. It couldn’t come in a better moment.”

Arsenal now have to prove that really is the case.