By DAVID MOSSE
Not long ago Arsenal seemed poised to finally snap its trophy-less streak, but the Gunners fell short in four competitions and now all that is left is securing direct entry into next season’s UEFA Champions League.
Arsene Wenger’s side trails Manchester City by one point entering the final round, so Arsenal needs a victory against Fulham on Sunday (11 a.m., Fox Deportes) to ensure that it doesn't need to go through the UCL qualifying round.
The Gunners have won just two of their last 10 league games, Cesc Fabregas remains sidelined with a thigh injury and may have played his final game for the club and Samir Nasri faces a fitness test. Another absence that could loom large is that of Abou Diaby, as Arsenal must establish control in the center of the park against a Fulham side brimming with confidence.
Injuries derailed what could have been an even more promising season for the Cottagers, but Clint Dempsey & Co. are still in the top half of the table and in position to grab a UEFA Europa League spot thanks to UEFA’s Fair Play rankings.
Here's a look ahead to the other important matches in Europe this weekend:
Manchester United vs. Blackpool, Sunday, 11 a.m., ESPN2
Blackpool is one of five teams separated by one point in this remarkable relegation battle and Ian Holloway’s side probably needs a win at Old Trafford to avoid the drop.
The Seasiders boosted their survival hopes with a dramatic victory over Bolton last time out and will need another big effort from DJ Campbell, who found the back of the net twice. Jason Puncheon and Charlie Adam chipped in goals as well, as Blackpool overcame a nightmarish game at the back. The Seasiders must hold their own in the center of the park Sunday, so David Vaughn is a key figure.
Wolverhampton vs. Blackburn, Sunday, 11 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus
Blackburn was unlucky not to come away with all three points last week against Manchester United, as the Red Devils snatched a late equalizer thanks to a very dodgy penalty, but Steve Kean was still pleased with the 1-1 final. The Rovers face Wolverhampton on Sunday, with both teams one point above the relegation zone in what shapes up as perhaps the most dramatic match of the day.
Both Brett Emerton and Jason Roberts are capable of causing problems for the Wolves, while Martin Olssson is a real threat with his rampaging runs down the right side. Goalkeeper Paul Robinson should be called upon quite a bit, as Steven Fletcher represents a dangerous weapon for Wolverhampton. Fletcher scored in last week’s 3-1 win over Sunderland and Mick McCarthy will fancy his side’s chances.
Deportivo La Coruna vs. Valencia, Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN3.com
It’s been a depressing campaign for Deportivo, but the Riazor will be loud on Saturday, as the Galician club seeks to avoid relegation. Miguel Angel Lotina’s side enters the final round one point above Real Zaragoza and should benefit from the fact that Valencia has already secured direct qualification into the Champions League. Expect Lotina to be very aggressive, fielding an attacking lineup.
Juan Carlos Valeron has emerged as the unquestioned leader of this team in recent weeks and will likely be flanked by strikers Adrian and Ivan Riki, while Andres Guardado provides plenty of inspiration from the wing. Alberto Lopo anchors the back-line and Daniel Aranzubia is a capable goalkeeper, so Lotina will be confident against a Valencia side that could rest some of its top players.
Levante vs. Real Zaragoza, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Real Zaragoza will be hoping Deportivo stumbles because Los Blanquillos face a Levante side with nothing to play for on Saturday and have an excellent chance to pick up all three points. Manager Javier Aguirre received some good news this week, as Uruguayan defender Carlos Diogo should be available after recovering from an ankle injury. Goalkeeper Toni Doblas also returns from suspension.
Aguirre's side notched a crucial win over Espanyol last week thanks to a goal from Argentine midfielder Leonardo Ponzio, who should be a key figure once again. Ponzio and Gabi will be entrusted with establishing control in the center of the park, while strikers Angel Lafita and Ikechukwu Uche try to break through up front. Levante counters with talented Ecuadorian hitman Felipe Caicedo, scorer of 13 league goals.
Udinese vs. AC Milan, Sunday, 2:45 p.m., FSC
A Champions League berth beckons for Udinese, as the Friulani need only one point against a Milan side still in celebration mode after clinching its first Scudetto since 2004. The Rossoneri showed off the trophy in front of their home fans last week, then blew away Cagliari behind a sensational performance from Robinho, who scored two goals. Massimiliano Allegri insists his side will put up a fight on Sunday.
Udinese took care of business as well, knocking off Chievo 2-0 to remain two points above Lazio. Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah scored the goals, but the key figures offensively are Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean winger has enjoyed a marvelous campaign and could be headed to be a bigger club, with the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United said to be interested in his services.
Lecce vs. Lazio, Sunday, 2:45 p.m., ESPN3.com
Lazio needs a win against Lecce and a favor from AC Milan to qualify for next season’s Champions League. Edy Reja’s side kept its hopes alive last week with a 4-2 win over Genoa that featured another terrific performance from Hernanes. The Brazilian scored two goals in the second half and will look to cap off a successful first year in Italy with a strong display on Sunday alongside Cristian Ledesma.
Tommaso Rocchi also found the back of the net against Genoa and Mauro Zarate is capable of shredding any defense, so Reja will be confident Lazio can hold up its end of the bargain. Lecce boasts a formidable home record, but will have nothing to play for after assuring its Serie A survival last week with a win over Bari. Gigi De Canio’s side may also be without several key players like Ruben Oliveira and Gustavo.
Which teams do you see being relegated in England and Spain? Who do you see cementing a Champions League berth in Italy? Which games are you looking forward to watching?
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