Soccer-Jittery Arsenal losing their grip with summit in sight
By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) -Even when Arsenal were building a daunting lead at the top of the Premier League and excitement was building in north London there were those who questioned whether Mikel Arteta’s side would be able to cope when Manchester City turned up the heat.
Until a week ago it appeared they were taking it all in their stride as they arrived at Anfield on a seven-match winning run in the league and then went 2-0 ahead against Liverpool inside a scintillating half an hour.
Perhaps then the enormity of what was looming on the horizon — a first league title since 2004 — began to sink in.
Liverpool roared back to draw 2-2 and were unlucky not to claim all three points as Arsenal visibly shrank.
When the Gunners went 2-0 ahead at West Ham United on Sunday, this time inside 10 minutes, it seemed they had recovered their poise after the trauma of last weekend on Merseyside.
But, again, Arsenal stopped doing what they have done so well all season as the weight of expectation weighed on their shoulders and West Ham, just like Liverpool, took advantage to seize control having been initially outplayed.
A needless penalty converted by Said Benrahma and a superb volley by Jarrod Bowen cancelled out early strikes from Gabriel Jesus and Martin Odegaard in a thrilling 2-2 draw.
To make matters worse Bukayo Saka had sent a penalty well wide a couple of minutes before Bowen’s equaliser.
City, who have won six league games in a row and are four points behind Arsenal with a game in hand and a home match to come against Arteta’s side, certainly do not need any help to win titles.
But Arsenal have offered up the sort of gifts that Pep Guardiola’s ruthless side are unlikely to reciprocate as they seek a fifth Premier League crown in six seasons.
Arteta’s face at the final whistle said it all and he knows that Arsenal have lost control of the title race.
The Spaniard would not accept that nerves were a factor but was right to criticise his side’s lack of game management and killer instinct.
“When I see a team playing with that flow at 2-0 certainly it’s not the pressure,” Arteta told reporters. “It’s that we misunderstood what the game needed in that moment.
“There is a moment where you could go 3-1 up after 50 minutes and probably the game is over. Two minutes after that you concede the equaliser. This is part of football.
“My worry is after 2-0 that we made that huge mistake and didn’t understand what the game required.
“At that moment we gave them hope.”
It is hard to imagine Manchester City dropping four points from consecutive matches in which they held two-goal leads.
Arteta, who worked under Guardiola at City, knows that ruthlessness is required in title run-ins.
“When the game is there for the killing you have to do it. Today we haven’t done it,” the Spaniard added.
“The last thing we want in our brains is to not have the confidence to kill the game when you can do it.”
Once the disappointment has diluted, however, Arsenal are still in a position of strength.
They host bottom club Southampton on Friday and, with City in FA Cup semi-final action next weekend, could go to the Etihad for what is being called a title decider on April 26 with a seven-point lead over the champions, albeit from two more games.
If they do, the pressure might then switch to Guardiola’s side who know they have little margin for error.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)