It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Arsenal were supposed to be heading into the final round of Premier League fixtures after thumping Aston Villa, to then sneak ahead of Wolves and Tottenham into a Europa League spot after another resounding win over Watford.
However, that’s not the case. Sunday’s clash with the Hornets is now worth nothing more than the potential of overtaking Burnley and Sheffield United into eighth.
Qualification for Europe now hinges entirely on an FA Cup final with Chelsea, leaving matchday 38 of the Premier League as something of a dead rubber.
However, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Arsenal need a win – and a convincing one at that – to head to Wembley with confidence in the bag, and given that there will six days’ rest ahead of the final, the lineup should reflect that. Changes, sure, but a team strong enough to secure three points.
Emiliano Martinez (GK) – Since coming into the side following injury to Bernd Leno, Martinez has been nothing short of outstanding. It seemed like an unenviable task for the Argentine, but with the way he’s played it’s now genuinely hard to see Leno wrestling the number one spot back. He’s been that good.
Rob Holding (RCB) – With Shokdran Mustafi out of contention, Holding will get the nod more out of formality than anything else. After a shaky return since his long-term injury his displays have improved, and he’ll need all the confidence he can get for when he’s faced with Christian Pulisic at Wembley.
David Luiz (CB) – Luiz simply must continue in the vein of form he’s in or he risks being thrown back into the hungry media lions’ den. We all know he’s most suited to being central in a back three, so Mikel Arteta must stick to that formula to ensure his side are as solid as can be in defence.
Sead Kolasinac (LCB) – Again this is a position where Arteta doesn’t have much leeway, given his left-footed defensive options are thin on the ground. Kolasinac is always capable of calamity, but then so are the rest, right?
Hector Bellerin (RWB) – Cedric was pretty damn woeful at Villa Park, with poor distribution throughout. Meanwhile, Bellerin has improved that aspect of his game, and having played no part in the most recent fixture should see him come back in at wing-back.
Granit Xhaka (CM) – When the teamsheet came out against Villa, the biggest shock wasn’t the three strikers up front but in fact the lack of Xhaka in midfield. He needed a rest, but now that’s done and dusted he comes straight back into the team. It’s needed.
Joe Willock (CM) – Dani Ceballos has played a lot of minutes since the restart and is up there with the Gunners’ best performers during that period. But with the focus now on next Saturday, Willock should come in and play just in front of his Swiss partner. He’s more willing to run in behind and offers creativity higher up the pitch.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (LWB) – Arteta surprised many when he included Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup to face Manchester City at Wembley, but in that unfamiliar role he put in a solid shift. Should he start in the FA Cup final? Perhaps not, though. Give Kieran Tierney more rest and Maitland-Niles more minutes on Sunday.
Nicolas Pepe (RW) – It would be tempting to field Reiss Nelson in an all-academy front line, but Pepe offers the most creativity in the final third and could be key in transitions since the Hornets may need victory to secure their top flight status. When he’s on the counter attack he’s at his most dangerous, which could suit the approach Arteta goes for.
Eddie Nketiah (ST) – Give the two big guns a rest for this one. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will need to be in top shape to face Chelsea, so cameos at the Emirates will suffice. Nketiah, on the other hand, needs to regain his match sharpness since his red card, and his pace will trouble a slow Watford defence.
Bukayo Saka (LW) – Against a fragile Hornets defence, Saka could have field day. Arsenal’s new number seven will be eager to show his worth up front more often and should get the chance to do so on Sunday. A first top flight goal on home soil could be the perfect segue into a maiden Wembley goal too. Well, fans can hope anyway.
For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!