Arsenal can take a significant step towards qualifying for next season’s Champions League by beating Newcastle United at the Emirates Stadium on Monday.
Gunners fans have taken participation in Europe’s premier competition as a given in recent years but the challenge of Everton has put a top-four finish in jeopardy this term.
However, Everton’s 2-0 loss at Southampton on Saturday was a big boost for Arsene Wenger and his players, and victory over Newcastle would give them a four-point advantage over the Merseysiders with just six points available to either side.
Wenger, the Premier League’s longest-serving manager, has also indicated he intends to sign a new contract at the end of the season, although until that actually happens speculation remains inevitable with the 64-year-old Frenchman’s current deal expiring at the end of the current campaign.
“I have said that many times already, I have given my word to this club and that I want to continue where I am,” Wenger said in an interview with a Middle East television station. “That means to stay.”
Wenger will be sure to keep an eye on Newcastle striker Loic Remy, who is on loan for the season from Queens Park Rangers.
Remy is believed to be available for an Â£8 million fee ($13m, 10m euros) and Wenger is known to be an admirer of the France international who, at 27, should have plenty more seasons at his peak ahead of him.
“He is a very good striker,” Wenger confirmed. “But at the moment we focus on the end of the season, not strikers.”
Arsenal will go into the match on the back of Premier League victories over West Ham and Hull City and will meet the latter in the FA Cup final next month.
– ‘Time to wake up’ –
The Gunners saw off holders Wigan in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals and defender Bacary Sagna believed that success had bolstered their league form.
“It was about time to wake up and that’s what we did recently in our games,” he said. “We’re fighting a bit a more and we’re helping each other a bit more as well.
“We had to react because we were beaten too many times and didn’t fight to win those games. We showed a different image from what we’ve done in the past year and it was not Arsenal.
“Now we’re fighting back and we will take it step by step. With Wigan we managed to show some character — it was good to come back to win the semi-final and I think it’s going to give some power to the team to the end.
“We have to win every single match and play it game by game to qualify for the Champions League and win the FA Cup.”
Mid-table Newcastle welcome back the influential French trio of Remy, Mathieu Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko from injury in a boost to their hopes of avoiding a sixth straight league defeat — a run that would match an unwanted 27-year-old top flight club record.
All three Frenchmen have been accused by supporters of delaying their return to save themselves for this June’s World Cup finals in Brazil, but Alan Pardew thinks that’s unfair.
The Newcastle manager, who returns to the technical area after serving a seven-game touchline ban for headbutting Hull’s David Meyler last month, said: “We’re pleased to have that quality back in the side. We’ve worked hard on their fitness to get them back up to Premier League speed and they’ve really benefited from that.
“They know they’ve got to end the season well, they’re aware of that, not just for their ambitions with France, but for the good of Newcastle as well.
“To suggest they’ve been saving themselves for the World Cup is a bit unfair. They’ve all had genuine injuries, and certainly Moussa is back ahead of time, and you could say the same for Mathieu.”