Alexandre Lacazette is anticipating a “difficult but exciting” finish in the race for the coveted final two Champions League spots in the Premier League this season.
Liverpool and Manchester City are battling it out at the top of the table for the league title but, among the chasing pack, the four-way battle to finish in the top four is perhaps even more exciting.
Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea are battling to finish third and fourth and are separated by just five points from third to sixth place as the season enters the home straight. The Gunners dealt a blow to United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prior to the international break with a 2-0 win at the Emirates, leaping above the Red Devils into the fourth and final spot.
Spurs, meanwhile, are enduring a blip as they’ve suffered three defeats and a draw in their last four games to fall out of title contention and be hauled into the scrap for the top four.
They are third, a point ahead of their north London rivals, with United two points adrift of the Gunners and sixth-placed Chelsea a point further back.
Arsenal have the more favourable run-in on paper as they don’t face another top-six rival, and Lacazette has set his side the task of winning every one of their remaining eight games.
“It’s going to be difficult of course, but exciting as well,” the Frenchman, 27, told Sport360 in the wake of the Gunners’ 3-2 triumph over Arabian Gulf League side Al Nasr in Dubai on Tuesday night.
“It’s been a good battle all season so we just want to win every single game and finish third or fourth. It will be good for us and our fans.”
Unai Emery’s side have been on a week-long training camp in the Emirates and agreed to take on the Blue Wave in a game to mark the official re-opening of their refurbished Al Maktoum Stadium.
“Thank you to our fans for the atmosphere today,” said Lacazette, who scored the second goal to put Arsenal 2-1 up just after the break, following a terse first-half performance in which they were second best to the AGL strugglers.
And Lacazette feels the trip and second-half performance will help the Gunners as they seek to finish the season in style – they aim to return to the Champions League while they also face Napoli in the Europa League quarter-finals.
“It was a good idea by the club to bring the players available here to Dubai. It’s been good weather, it was a good pitch, great facilities. Everyone enjoyed it and we worked well for one week. Now we have to come back to London and stay focused on the Premier League and Europa League.”
Former Barcelona playmaker Denis Suarez – who Emery brought in from the cold at the Camp Nou in January – started the game and impressed, and he was perhaps one player Emery was alluding to when he said he expected some of his fringe group to push for more game time as the season enters the business end of proceedings.
The former Paris Saint-Germain coach said: “We gave youngsters some chances to be with us. Also players I want to come in, they played the first half and they pushed a lot with good performances.”
Arsenal overcame a lively opening from Dubai hosts Al Nasr to triumph 3-2 in a match to officially open the Arabian Gulf League’s revamped Al Maktoum Stadium.
The hosts were far the better side in the first half, going in front via Ronnie Fernandez’s stunning strike. Carl Jenkinson levelled before the break and the Premier League giants completed the comeback through Alexandre Lacazette and Tyreece John-Jules goals.
Here, we dissect the action and analyses some of the talking points:
THIS IS WHY OZIL IS OSTRACIZED
But deep in the heart of Dubai, this friendly was a microcosm of Ozil’s career in north London. Whether it was a meaningless game or not, we got to see both the bewitching and baffling sides of the gifted German.
Gliding about the pitch in the first half, he always looked like the man who would stitch something significant together for Arsenal. The problem was the Gunners were misfiring as Nasr blasted out of the traps, and every neat flick or quick-witted move from Ozil was followed by a lackadaisical, lazy pass or a lackluster, over-ambitious one.
Contrast that with his contribution to the goal that put Arsenal in the ascendancy. As Ainsley Maitland-Niles attacked the space, you could see Ozil’s radar was already switched on to where he could direct the move next.
He wandered into space, drew two defenders, and when Maitland-Niles found him, he feathered a pass into the path of Lacazette for an easy, but stylistically excellent, finish. As a player, he is equally enthralling as he is an enigma.
BLUE WAVE NEED TO RIDE THE TIDE
Okay, sure, any club is going to raise their level when competing against one of the biggest clubs in the world – look at how fellow UAE clubs Al Jazira and Al Ain performed against Champions League winners Real Madrid at the last two Club World Cups.
But just what rock has this Blue Wave been hiding behind all season?
Sure, this was no more than a friendly for the Premier League big boys, but they still had stars Ozil and Lacazette on the field – and yet they were by far the second best side on it.
Nasr were sharp, incisive and full of attacking intent – they were a joy to watch. Can this performance now kick-start the Benat San Jose era? All is lost for this season. They sit a lowly 11th out of 14 teams in the AGL and remain perilously close to the relegation zone, five points above second-bottom Emirates Club.
Any conciliatory success in the cups was robbed on each occasion by Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club – who knocked Nasr out of both the President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup at the semi-finals and quarter-finals respectively.
On this performance, their cataclysmic failure of a campaign is a puzzling conundrum to explain.
PLENTY FOR EMERY TO PONDER
Clubs the world over are pouring into the UAE, and especially Dubai, during the European winter for some much-needed relaxation and recharging of the batteries as the torturous business end of the season takes its toll.
For Unai Emery and his men this was a chance to regroup, relax and refocus ahead of the return of club football this weekend.
The Gunners went into the international break on the back of fine victories against Manchester United – revenge for their FA Cup exit – and a resounding 3-0 win in the second leg of their Europa League last 16 tie against Rennes, to undo the damage done from a 3-1 first-leg defeat.
The United triumph saw the men from the Emirates leapfrog the Red Devils into the coveted final spot in the Premier League’s top four.
They welcome Newcastle to the Emirates on Monday ahead of a tricky trip to Everton, in what is sure to be a tight and tense race for the last two Champions League places.
This was a useful break and run-out. But now, the most testing period of the season approaches.
Arsenal secured a hard-fought 3-2 win over Arabian Gulf League strugglers Al Nasr – going 1-0 down before surging back in the second half.
Arsenal, second best throughout the opening 45 minutes, fell behind to a sumptuous strike. Brazilian Junior Dutra flew down the right and had the awareness to look up and pick out Chilean Ronnie Fernandez. He curled an effort beyond the despairing Bernd Leno which went in off the inside of the post.
The Gunners fired back via Denis Suarez’s exquisite vision. He picked out Carl Jenkinson’s run and after the much-maligned right-back’s first effort cannoned off the upright, he thumped home the rebound.
Unai Emery’s side gained far more of a foothold in the second half and went 2-1 ahead within minutes of the restart – Mesut Ozil’s impish flick set up Alexandre Lacazette who had the simplest of finishes.
They scored a killer third late on through an astute and calm finish from teenager Tyreece John-Jules, before Nasr earned a consolation through Khalid Jalal’s penalty.
Here is how we rated the Arsenal players:
Bernd Leno 7: Was a lot busier than perhaps he would have expected to be. Called upon numerous times and was sharp and alert. Could do nothing about Fernandez’s fantastic effort.
Carl Jenkinson 6: Struggled with attacks down his side. But thumped home the equaliser having hit the woodwork with his initial effort.
Shkodran Mustafi 5: Easy in the second half following a wave of Blue Wave substitutions. Struggled badly with Nasr’s pace and Alvaro Negredo’s brutish presence in the first half though.
Dinos Mavropanos 4: Simply could not compete with Negredo. Was outmuscled in nearly every duel. Easier second half but that belied a below par showing.
Zech Medley 7: Had work cut out with Blue Wave surging forward, but was diligent and got forward too. A real athlete with pace to burn.
Charlie Gilmour 6: Showed good poise on the ball and distribution was impressive. But he and young colleague Sheaf were badly exposed and sliced through regularly.
Ben Sheaf 5: Overawed a little and was perhaps feeling the heat. Struggled in the first half but looked more at ease as Arsenal turned it on in the second half.
Xavier Amaechi 6: The box of tricks always looked dangerous with the ball at his feet. Couldn’t quite conjure any magic.
Mesut Ozil 7: Can see why he frustrates fans. Eminently brilliant and capable of the extraordinary. But is too often ordinary. Gorgeous back heel put chance on a plate for Lacazette.
Denis Suarez 8: Always capable of lighting the fuse. Pristine vision slipped in Jenkinson, who scored at the second attempt. Could play a big part in remainder of the season.
Alexandre Lacazette 7: Kept the Nasr backline honest as he foraged for chances, but largely fed on scraps as his side were pegged back. Always alive after the break, took chance well, could have had more.
Petr Cech 6: Little to do bar a routine few saves here and there.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles 7: Promising player continued his development, sparking the move that led to Arsenal’s second minutes after coming on.
Julio Pleguezuelo 4: Seemed to commit a blatant, reckless foul on Omar, but the referee thought otherwise. Busy. Clumsily then conceded a needless penalty.
Jordi Osei-Tutu 6: Came on and looked bright without getting involved too much.
Tyreece John-Jules 7: A lot of people are excited about the 18-year-old, and this was a glimpse into why. He broke free and calmly rounded Essa before firing past two defenders on the line.
James Olayinka N/A