By the time we play our first game in April (home versus Liverpool, as it happens) we could be sitting on Cloud Nine or wallowing in a trough of despond.
It all depends on how we do in our five matches during the month of March:
March 6th: Burnley (a).
March 11th: Olimpiacos (a).
March 14th: Tottering Hotspuds (h).
March 18th: Olimpiacos (h).
March 21st: West Ham (a).
We could enter April in the quarter finals of the Europa league, with an improved position in the Premier League (giving us a second shot at European football next season) and having defeated the noisy neighbours.
Alternatively… well, let’s not dwell on the alternative.
The Greek side have given us problems over the years in both the Champions League and the Europa League (they knocked us out of the latter on away goals in February last year). However, I sense that we are in a better place to play them this time round in terms of both personnel and tactics.
A year ago Mikel Arteta was still just getting his feet under the table and trying to fix the mess left by Unai Emery. His first job was to shore up our leaky defence, but it came at the cost of our effectiveness going forward. Against Olimpiacos we did not create enough chances and paid the price.
Fast forward just over a year and we are now playing a much more dynamic brand of attacking football, with multiple forward options emerging.
What’s more of a worry (to me at least) is the fact that we play the Spuds just three days after a long trip to Athens. The Spuds have their own Europa League tie on the Thursday night, but they’re at home against Dinamo Zagreb. Admittedly, when it comes to an environment that’s good for the soul, the Greek capital is a hell of a lot more appealing than the swamplands of N17 but there’s a fair bit of travel involved.
This raises a dilemma: the EL should be our priority for the rest of this season given our current league position. It’s our best chance of getting European football next year and our only chance of getting into the Champions League.
By that logic El Patron should play his strongest possible team against Olimpiacos, which probably means there will have to be some rotation when we play the Tinies.
It’s not an ideal scenario, but the result against Leicester on Sunday showed that if the squad players are in form they can get the job done. Against our neighbours we may well be relying on another good showing from Willian and Pepe. Too much to hope for? I hope not.
As for the other fixtures in March, Burnley will be a tough game and probably quite physical, but if we are truly progressing under Arteta it’s a game we ought to be winning.
That leaves West Ham, which – on paper – is the most challenging game of the lot (what strange times we live in: a pandemic shuts down the world and the Happy Hammers find themselves in the top four: it’s hard to know which of the two is the more unexpected). The Irons are having an excellent season under David Moyes but I suspect they are more vulnerable than their position implies.
They’ve just lost to Manchester City and face Leeds and Manchester United before they meet us. I would not expect them to be in the top four at that point and their confidence may well have taken a bit of a knock.
So what’s the minimum required from March?
On one level you could say it’s just qualifying for the next round of the Europa League. But if our Premier League form goes down the toilet it will have a knock-on effect on our momentum and the mood around the cub, so it’s vital we continue to progress there as well otherwise we’re sure to struggle in the later rounds of the EL.
My delusional, optimistic soul thinks there is at least a chance we’ll win all our games in March, but I’ll settle for knocking out Olimpiacos and taking seven points from our three league games.
What do you think?