Wilshere worries define tense top-four race

The 21-year-old is no one-man team but his fitness must be carefully managed if Arsenal are to bridge the gap on Tottenham and Chelsea to qualify for next year’s Champions League

By George Ankers

After his performance for England against Brazil, dominating the game’s most traditional of powers, the impression was confirmed that Jack Wilshere is back at the level he was before his long string of injuries. His showing against Sunderland on Saturday only underlined it.

Now the 21-year-old finds himself as potentially the most important pugilist in the brawl for a top-four finish.

Arsenal have perfected in recent years a metronomic knack for scraping fourth despite all their travails throughout the season. Four points behind Tottenham with 12 games each left to play, they could well do so again. But they will need Wilshere to do it.

All three of the most likely contenders for the final two Champions League qualification spots won on Saturday but each showed their vulnerability, too. It was the Gunners who had their hearts most in their mouths, though, when their midfield star was forced off with an injury.

Arsene Wenger played down fears about Wilshere’s knock, suggesting that he will only be out for “four or five days” after limping off the Stadium of Light pitch, but keeping the youngster safe is now priority No.1. England boss Roy Hodgson admitted his attempts to hide the central midfielder from pressure before the midweek friendly but the Arsenal manager is more worried about burnout.

The consistency of Wilshere’s influence, next to the likes of Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott who have the quality but do not let it show in every game, makes him hard to drop. But he must be managed carefully so wins must be wrapped up quickly enough to give him a rest to avoid recurrences of his past injuries or see new ones suffered.

With the 21-year-old making the play from the No.10 position, passing with accuracy and assurance, Arsenal have it in them to unlock any Premier League defence. They are not a one-man team but they look a less confident outfit without him; there is less spring in their step and less bite in their attacks.

It is a similar scenario at White Hart Lane, which is precisely why Arsenal can catch Tottenham if their best players stay fit. Gareth Bale was not at his best for the visit of Newcastle, going long periods without doing a great deal of anything, but when given a sniff of a chance made the difference.

The Welshman is neither as far away from Cristiano Ronaldo’s level as he says nor as close to it as some broadcasters would have you believe – but Spurs have an extra dimension when he is on the pitch. When James Perch caught his leg in the follow-through of an otherwise acceptable tackle, necessitating treatment, both sides of north London understood the fragility of having a key player.

If both Bale and Wilshere are kept fit and firing, however, then it could be Chelsea who break.

The comprehensive 4-1 scoreline of their win over Wigan flattered them somewhat, with Shaun Maloney’s quickfire response to the second a reminder of their struggles. In Rafa Benitez’s faltering interim reign, such a goal from the Latics prompted uh-ohs from Blues fans. It would not have been the first such lead dropped.

Fernando Torres troubled Ali Al Habsi often enough but the persistence with him is a weakness, not a virtue. It is as simple now as the fact that Demba Ba must start up front if he is fit; anything less is a needless risk to a top-four place which had looked secure for Chelsea not many months ago.

Merseyside, of course, could yet have a say in the top-four reckoning. Liverpool are very much outsiders, with the Europa League still to distract them and an unlikely points gap, but the form that they showed against Manchester City would trouble anyone.

Everton are closer still, only six points behind Tottenham before Sunday’s clash with Manchester United.

David Moyes’s side have already proved their credentials by beating the Red Devils on the opening Monday of the season, as well as Spurs – do not count them out despite the excess of draws. Even if they do not qualify for the Champions League outright, they will still have a massive say in who does, with fixtures against all four of Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool still to play.

The table, though, tells the best truths and, being closer to it than the Merseysiders, Arsenal have the best hope of breaking back into the top four. Twelve games, four points: It can be done – but they need all hands on deck, Wilshere more than most. Expect a lot of crossed fingers in north London between now and May.

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