Arsenal have been impressive in the latter stages of the season but the big prizes were already out of touch and a hard battle with Sunderland could be instructive ahead of next year's title assault, says Andy Brassell
"A stylish romp against a weaker side would be typical Arsenal, but maybe it wouldn't do them any favours in the medium term. The growing sense that Wenger and company are firmly on the right track is oblivious to the fact that there is plenty of work to do in order to make them genuine title contenders next season."
A shoo-in is never that in the home straight of the season, and it is something we may be reminded of as the Premier League ties up loose ends ahead of Sunday's season closing fixtures. FA Cup finalists Arsenal host Sunderland on Wednesday and at any other point of the campaign, you'd think the outcome was as easy to predict as night following day.
This fixture is one of Arsenal's favourites. Sunderland have never won in seven visits to The Emirates, and Arsene Wenger's team have won seven and not lost any of the two teams' last ten meetings overall. In this context, it seems completely logical that Arsenal are just 1.321/3 to win.
Sunderland, meanwhile, are available at 6.05/1 to get the point that would seal safety from relegation - if you fancied the chances of Dick Advocaat's side being able to do it in style, the price is a very attractive 12.5. Yet they are having a moment. The Dutchman was a perplexing appointment but much like the Mackems' last leftfield managerial punt, Paolo Di Canio, Advocaat appears to be having the desired effect in the short term, at least.
Three wins in the last six is almost as many as Gus Poyet managed to eke out in the previous 30 (just four), so it is plainly arguable that the club's decision to appoint the erstwhile Serbia coach has already been justified. Without wholesale changes, this Sunderland side will never be a great watch, but they are proving awkward and very effective at grinding out what they need - which is exactly what is required right now.
Even beyond the current bump, they have the profile to frustrate Arsenal. They are undoubtedly hard to break outside the Stadium of Light - half of this season's 16 draws have come on the road, and nobody outside the top six has lost fewer away games (Crystal Palace are level with them on six defeats). If we add in the knowledge that Arsenal have failed to score in each of their last two home games, it gets interesting. At this point, you might want to know that under 2.5 goals in the match is priced at 2.447/5.
Maybe Arsenal would settle for a bore draw. As vital as it would be for the visitors, even a point would effectively seal third place for The Gunners, with their superior goal difference to Manchester United's (seven better) meaning that a significant swing, as well as two unfavourable results on Sunday, would be required to depose the north Londoners.
A stylish romp against a weaker side would be typical Arsenal, but maybe it wouldn't do them any favours in the medium term. The growing sense that Wenger and company are firmly on the right track is oblivious to the fact that there is plenty of work to do in order to make them genuine title contenders next season. The Gunners' run since falling from the Champions League has been impressive - it has also been quintessential modern Arsenal, excelling when the big prizes have already gone.
Having it tough against Sunderland could be a useful reminder of how much further there is to go. So maybe that draw that would suit all round is not as unlikely as some think.