Arsenal travel to Goodison Park to take on Everton this weekend knowing that anything less than a win will spell the end for their Premier League title chances (12.45pm Saturday, BT Sport 1).
A run of just two victories in their last nine top flight encounters has seen Arsenal slide down from top spot to third place, with Arsene Wenger’s charges now trailing surprise leaders Leicester City by 11 points. The north Londoners do have a game in hand after last weekend’s clash with West Bromwich Albion was postponed due to their participation in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Some Arsenal supporters may even be nervously looking over their shoulders at Champions League-chasing West Ham United and Manchester United below them, with three points all that is separating them from fifth. A victory on Saturday afternoon is simply a must for Arsenal if they are to keep their fading championship challenge alive.
Everton, meanwhile, head into this game in a more positive mood after Romelu Lukaku’s brace helped them reach the FA Cup semi-finals with a 2-0 triumph over Chelsea last time out. Roberto Martinez’s (pictured) men’s league campaign has been a disappointment, however. A squad containing the likes of Lukaku, Ross Barkley, James McCarthy and Gerard Deulofeu should probably be challenging for a place in the top six, but the Toffees instead find themselves down in 12th spot with just 10 matches remaining. Everton’s problems this term have been at the back rather than going forward, with Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich City, Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Swansea City the only teams to have conceded more often than the Merseysiders in the top flight.
Wenger will be unable to call upon Petr Cech (calf), Aaron Ramsey (thigh), Santi Cazorla (Achilles), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Tomas Rosicky (thigh) and Jack Wilshere (ankle), but central defender Laurent Koscielny is available again after recovering from a calf problem this week. Danny Welbeck is likely to be given the nod up front ahead of Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, with David Ospina set to continue between the sticks in Cech’s absence.
Everton have fewer injury concerns, with squad players Tony Hibbert and Tyias Browning (both knee) the only definite absentees. Martinez may be tempted to field a side as close to the one that overcame Chelsea as possible, with Aaron Lennon and Barkley supporting centre-forward Romelu Lukaku at the top of the pitch. John Stones will likely have to settle for a place on the substitutes’ bench once more as Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori resume their centre-back partnership, but Gareth Barry’s one-match suspension should see Mo Besic given an opportunity in the centre of midfield. Kevin Mirallas is also banned, but Bryan Oviedo, Darron Gibson and Steven Pienaar should all be passed fit.
Arsenal have far more to play for than Everton, who now look consigned to a mid-table finish. That could either give them an advantage on Saturday or make their players more anxious and unable to play their natural game. Having exited the Champions League and the FA Cup in the last few days, the Gunners have nothing else left to play for but the league, even if their chances of lifting the championship for the first time since 2004 are now rather slim.
Taking everything into account, our preview’s verdict is that the most likely outcome at Goodison Park is a draw, with odds of a 2-2 – perhaps with Arsenal to score first – pretty favourable. Lukaku is the favourite to get on the scoresheet, but a wager on Lennon – who has found the back of the net on five occasions in his last eight appearances in all competitions – to beat David Ospina in the Arsenal goal represents far better value.