After a stunning crash exit from the Europa League, it is fourth – or maybe fifth – place or bust for Arsenal, who look to start their climb up the table Saturday at home versus West Ham United in a London derby.
The Gunners (8-13-6) were idle last weekend since Manchester City went about winning the Carabao Cup for the third straight year. That may have been a good thing for Mikael Arteta to delay the eagerly awaited reunion with former boss Pep Guardiola given the hangover Arsenal’s away goals loss after extra time to Greek side Olympiakos in the round of 32 of the Europa League on Feb. 27 following a 2-1 defeat.
Arsenal began to move on from that crushing blow in a tournament they have exceled at over the years – the FA Cup. The Gunners, already 13-time champions in England’s most prestigious club tournament, advanced to the quarterfinals Monday with a 2-0 victory at Portsmouth.
Sokratis scored deep in first-half stoppage time and Eddie Nketiah scored shortly after the restart as the north Londoners limited Pompey to one shot on target and recorded their fourth clean sheet in six matches across all competitions. Arteta blooded some of his youngsters for the match, including a first start for defender Pablo Mari.
«I’m so happy for Pablo, he’s a great guy, a great player and he had an amazing game so we are here to help each other and we are here, 25 players, ready to play, ready to play for Arsenal and ready to give the best job,» fellow defender David Luiz told the club’s official website.
«When it’s like that it’s a pleasure to play football as I will say to the guys, especially to these young lads who are starting football. They are starting with a great opportunity at a big club and they are doing great, so it’s a pleasure to play with them.»
Arsenal will be on the road again in the quarterfinals, drawing Premier League surprise package Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in a fortnight. The Gunners’ task in the interim is to make up the eight-point gap to fourth-placed Chelsea, a challenging one as there are currently five sides between them and the Pensioners.
Meanwhile, on the east side of the capital, West Ham United are in the throes of a five-team relegation scrap. The Irons (7-6-15) are 16th on the narrowest of goal differences, two better than Watford and three over Bournemouth, but since David Moyes’ team have shipped the most goals (49) among the trio, there’s little guarantee they’re safe.
To West Ham’s credit, though, they shook off a disheartening loss at Anfield to Liverpool in which they squandered a lead and thumped Southampton 3-1 at home Saturday to end a seven-match winless streak in league play. Jarred Bowen, a £20 million transfer on deadline day, opened his scoring account while under-fire striker Sebastien Haller bagged his first goal since New Year’s Day.
A third from Michail Antonio salted away three vital points for the Irons, who are seeking back-to-back league wins for the first time since late August.
«The feeling of scoring a goal is the best feeling!» the 23-year-old Bowen told West Ham’s official website. «It’s what you dream of, scoring goals, so when I see the chance there to score a goal, I’m going to try and get there because there is nothing better than seeing the ball hit the back of the net and you run off celebrating and everyone is congratulating you. I enjoy scoring goals. I embrace it.»
While goals are always welcome, West Ham do need to tighten defensively to at least give themselves a chance of escaping the drop. The Irons have lost five on the bounce outside London Stadium, shipping 12 goals after conceding just 11 in their previous nine road contests.
The short trip to north London has often left long faces for West Ham backers as the Irons have just five wins in 23 visits (5-1-17) in the Premier League era. They are also 1-1-8 in their last 10 visits while getting outscored 26-5.
Arsenal are seeking their second league double in four seasons over West Ham after a 3-1 win in the reverse fixture as Gabriel Martinelli, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored in a nine-minute span of the second half to more than offset Angelo Ogbonna’s first-half marker for the Irons.