Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur took different paths to reach similar results Saturday in the Premier League, and coincidentally the race for the top four and Champions League qualification is playing out much the same way.
The difference there, of course, is that with Chelsea also in the race, the top four likely won't have room for both north London rivals. Fortunately for Arsenal fans, Arsene Wenger's men appear well placed despite Tottenham's late triumph at White Hart Lane.
Spurs climbed to third place briefly with a 1-0 home win over Southampton on Saturday as Gareth Bale produced another late winner worthy of his PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year awards. The Welsh midfielder cut into the middle from the left and buried a left-footed shot in the corner of the net at the far post.
The winner, Bale's 20th league goal of the season, came in the final minutes and was arguably more than Spurs deserved against a dangerous Southampton side. Afterward, manager Andre Villas-Boas praised his team's talisman but denied that Spurs are a one-man team.
Via talkSPORT: “Obviously Gareth Bale is in incredible form. In the end most of the teams that are at the top of the league have players who are decisive. It’s not only us. The fact that we are enjoying Gareth’s form is excellent for the team but, in the end, the team produces (chances) for him.”
Arsenal also recorded a 1-0 win, but it came away from home against relegated Queens Park Rangers. Unlike Tottenham, Arsenal scored in the first minute through Theo Walcott. Much like Tottenham, though, Arsenal largely failed to reach top form.
(GIF via 101 Great Goals)
"We played conscious of how vital the points were, so we couldn't make a mistake," said Wenger (per The Guardian). "That might have been a bit detrimental but we were very sound defensively and played a very intelligent game."
Walcott's goal was officially timed at 20 seconds, though the ball appeared to cross the line before then. It set the mark for fastest goal of the Premier League season (per BBC Sport) and tied Arsenal's all-time mark in all competitions (via Arsenal.com).
It was Walcott's 13th league goal of the season and second quick strike in as many games. He scored in the second minute last week as Arsenal drew 1-1 at home to champions Manchester United.
Now 24, Walcott is approaching his prime years. He is still yet to hit the heights his new contract warrants, but 13 goals represent a worthwhile return from the midfield. The questions for him moving forward involve where he fits into Arsenal's attack and whether he can fully reach his potential.
"You get to a stage where you're 24, which he is now, that's when a player becomes really more mature and you've seen that with his goalscoring record," Wenger said (per Sky Sports).
Arsenal struggled at times with QPR's two-man forward line. Rangers produced 13 total shots—one more than Arsenal—and hit the target four times (per WhoScored?). Meanwhile, Lukas Podolski was ineffective in the central attacking role in Olivier Giroud's absence, and after the early goal Arsenal went long stretches without threatening offensively.
On a positive note, Wojciech Szczesny played well in goal and the defense kept a clean sheet. Most importantly, the Gunners collected all three points and regained third place at least until Chelsea's match Sunday against Manchester United.
Before kickoff Sunday, Chelsea had two matches in hand on Arsenal, with only a two-point deficit to make up (table here). Spurs are two points back with one match in hand. For all three teams chasing the Premier League's final two Champions League places, this week will prove important.
Following Chelsea's date at Manchester United, the Blues host Tottenham on Wednesday in what could be a decisive match for both. The good news for Arsenal is that both teams can't win.
"I cannot even tell you what result I'd wish for in that game," Wenger told The Guardian after Saturday's win.
A draw would help Arsenal, especially if Chelsea drop points Sunday against United, but a victory for either would put the loser in a difficult position. Arsenal, meanwhile, are off until next Tuesday, when relegation candidates Wigan visit the Emirates. Roberto Martinez's team claimed a valuable victory at West Brom on Saturday and are again showing signs that an improbable escape is possible and will be coming off an FA Cup final appearance.
Even so, this is a winnable match for Arsenal, as will be the season finale at struggling Newcastle. With Chelsea and Tottenham set to square off, one or both will drop points. The task for Arsenal is simple—take advantage and keep winning.
"It's very tight and it's down to the team who makes no mistake," Wenger said (via Sky Sports) . "But I love it because it's a lot of tension and very exciting. It's demanding as well, because it's not easy."