Arsène Wenger is not a betting man. The Arsenal manager is happy to talk about the odds and, sometimes, to shout them but he would never wager any money on the outcome of a match. To him, it is a fool’s errand and it is so for good reason – the sport is gloriously and maddeningly unpredictable.
Wenger knows what everybody is thinking as he goes into the final day of the Premier League season, with his team sitting fifth, one point behind Liverpool and three behind Manchester City. There are plenty of permutations that would lead to Arsenal squeezing into a Champions League place, but the most basic way of putting it is they must beat Everton at the Emirates Stadium and either Liverpool slip up or City do so badly.
Liverpool face Middlesbrough at Anfield while City travel to Watford. Not for the first time, Wenger noted that Arsenal would return a tally of 75 points if they were to beat Everton – four more than they gained last season when finishing second. No Premier League team has finished outside the top four with 75 points.
“We can do 75 points, so let’s do it,” Wenger said. “Will it be enough or not? I don’t know. If you had to bet, you would say: ‘No, it will not be enough.’ But you never know.”
The bookmakers think they do. They have Liverpool at 1-9 to qualify for the Champions League and City at 1-100. Arsenal are 6-1, which does not feel overly generous and probably explains why the bookies never truly lose.
Wenger, though, is mindful that strange things can happen on the final day of a season and, almost instinctively, he brought up the most famous finale of them all. “Man City won the championship in the last minute against QPR,” Wenger said. “So, it can happen.”
City’s moment came in 2011-12, when Sergio Agüero scored in the fourth minute of added time to secure a 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers, which meant they pipped Manchester United to the title.
Wenger has first-hand experience of a last-day drama and although it was not on the same level as the Agüero-inspired turnaround it illustrates the point that the outlandish can come to pass. In 2005-06, Arsenal were in the same position as now – entering the final day in fifth, one point behind the team in fourth. That team was Tottenham Hotspur and they had to go to West Ham United, which was a difficult derby but one that the bookmakers, nevertheless, had them at 4-5 to win.
Fate would intervene on Arsenal’s behalf as 10 of the Tottenham players were struck by gastroenteritis. There were dramatic scenes in the hours before kick-off as the police were called in to investigate the outbreak and Tottenham demanded that the game be postponed. It would go ahead, Martin Jol’s off-colour team lost 2-1 and Arsenal, with a 4-2 win over Wigan in the last game at Highbury, were able to leap-frog them.
Arsenal did have an ace up their sleeves then. Ten days after the Wigan game, they were due to face Barcelona in the Champions League final at the Stade de France. Had they won that, they would have qualified for the competition the following season and edged out the Premier League’s fourth-placed team – if they had not finished there themselves. As it was, they lost 2-1 in Paris.
“In 2006, we had the Champions League final to prepare and this season we have the FA Cup final [against Chelsea],” Wenger said. “We thought we had the chance to win the Champions League and to be in the Champions League again, so the fear to be in it was less big. This time, we are less likely to be in it but we still can manage it by only focusing on what we think is important, which is to win against Everton.”
Wenger’s record of never having finished outside the top four in his 20 previous seasons at Arsenal hangs by a thread and he will cling to anything as he tries to maintain the sequence. He sought to make the point that Liverpool might not have it all their own way against Middlesbrough, as Arsenal did not when they played them at home in October. The game finished 0-0. Were it to be goalless for any length of time at Anfield, it would not be difficult to imagine the crowd’s anxiety. “It’s unpredictable,” Wenger said. “Liverpool will certainly be up for it; Middlesbrough will be up for it. Is Liverpool favourite? Yes. But we played 0-0 at home against Middlesbrough. It was not easy.”
Wenger has been criticised for merely delivering top-four finishes and he is frustrated that there should now be such a focus on him repeating the feat. “For 20 years, I had to answer: ‘Is that all you have to offer?’” he said. “So, Sunday, it becomes an absolutely vital subject? Absolutely unbelievable.”
Wenger seemed to miss the general point that Champions League qualification would do little more than salvage a disappointing league season. He looked to be caught between wanting to believe until all hope had gone and shrugging off the disappointment if the club failed to make it. “Financially, you don’t suffer any more,” he said. “During the period when we had to pay the Emirates Stadium off, the income of the Champions League was absolutely vital. But it does not have the financial weight that it had before because television money has gone up.
“It’s more the fact that we want to play in the best competition but did Chelsea play in the Champions League this year? Did Liverpool? No. If we have to cope with it, we have to cope with it.”