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Arsenal Suffer Another Setback In Top Four Race

Arsenal were favourites for the Premier League in January, remember. This, we were told, was the season when things would change, when their campaign would climax with a title as opposed to renewed membership of the top four.

On Sunday, the former became an impossibility, while the latter is under threat after 18 consecutive years of Champions League football.

Even manager Arsene Wenger, whose side were top on January 18, admitted to being ‘worried’ about clinging to fourth. He might be clinging to his job should fifth-placed Manchester United dislodge them during the closing weeks of another sorry season.

Wenger said: ‘Yes, of course we care about it and worry about it. It is a fight. It is frustrating because we play to win the title. The fact that we do not win it is, of course, frustrating.’

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce could not resist a dig, even if it was concealed amid a compliment.

‘I’m sure Arsene thought it was going to be his year on the basis of what Chelsea and Manchester United were doing — the window opened,’ he said.

‘Unfortunately, for them, they haven’t quite taken that opportunity.

‘But they’re still in the top four again and will qualify for Europe for 19 years on the trot — I would just like to be fourth from bottom!

Qualifying for the Champions League, however, has long since ceased to be a cause for excitement in north London, especially as they have exited at the last-16 stage in each of the past six seasons.

‘Boring, boring Arsenal’ they used to sing in celebration of the stingy title winners of the early Nineties. Now, it is just as tedious, only minus the league trophies.

For Arsenal were boring yesterday. They were ponderous and predictable in attack, while at the back their indecision at least offered some entertainment.

Mesut Ozil might feel aggrieved at being shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year only to miss out on their team of the season. But on the evidence of this disinterested display he was doing well to keep company with the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Dimitri Payet in the first place.

The irony was lost on Wenger as, afterwards, he talked of ‘two leagues’ within the top flight. His point was that there are triers and non-triers as the final weeks of the season approach.

‘There are two leagues at the moment,’ said Wenger. ‘The other one is the teams who are taking it easier. You see it in some games and you think “I would like to play them now”. The teams who are safe and not going for Europe.

‘Then you have the teams who are going for something at the top and the teams who are fighting not to go down.’

But to which division do his listless lot belong? They were at times eye-catching, yes, but ultimately ineffective and infuriating.

Arsenal’s lack of bravery was captured when substitute Theo Walcott chose to hurdle a 60-40 challenge with Younes Kabul. Winning possession, with the odds in his favour, would have sent him clear on an open goal. Come the end, it was Allardyce reflecting on two points dropped.

The Sunderland manager spent Saturday watching police drama Line of Duty rather than stressing over events elsewhere and, despite this point seeing his side scramble clear of the bottom three, he will know they are not out of jail yet. ‘Psychologically, moving out of the bottom three will be a big boost to the players,’ he said. ‘Our destiny is in our own hands.’

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