Arsene Wenger desperate for top-three Premier League finish
Arsene Wenger has his eyes on a top-three finish in the Barclays Premier League as he looks to avoid the lottery of a Champions League play-off.
The Gunners travel to struggling Sunderland on Sunday and sit third heading into the weekend after beating West Brom 2-0 on Thursday night.
While their own title bid collapsed amid a poor run of results after the turn of the year, a 20th consecutive season of Champions League qualification is now looking likely for a club whose business model has relied upon it for some time.
But Wenger wants to finish third, with Leicester and Tottenham unlikely to be caught as they battle for the crown, and be entered straight into the group stages rather than be drawn in a play-off at the start of next season.
"Top four is not Champions League. Top three, yes. That's why it is important," he said.
"We want to play against the top teams and we want to be in the Champions League.
"What has changed over the years is that the impact of the finances in the Champions League is not as big any more. For a period in the past the money was vital for us.
"But the sporting impact, the planning of the next season, of course it changes completely. Especially when you have a big summer tournament like the Euros which is now like a World Cup because it starts on June 10 and finishes on the 10th of July.
"When you have to play Champions League qualifiers the European Championship is still going on. You can play teams in the qualifiers who are in the middle of their championship because they have started already in June.
"But for us we don't know where we finish. We are not guaranteed top four and we have to fight for that. Man United is behind us and they will fight for it as well. We have difficult games and so do they."
A tricky trip to Sunderland, who are scrapping for their top-flight status and have renewed optimism after Sam Allardyce masterminded an impressive 3-0 win away to fellow strugglers Norwich, will not be an easy outing for the Gunners.
And that is why Wenger may decide to keep fit-again Jack Wilshere out of the firing line, despite the fact he has come through three Under-21 fixtures unscathed since returning from a broken fibula suffered on the eve of the season.
"I cannot plan that," Wenger replied when asked if Wilshere will feature at the Stadium of Light.
"At the moment I do not know if I will take him or not. Even if do I take him, you cannot plan that he will play a part in the game.
"Physically he is better. He made a big improvement in the third game. In the first two he was alright but in the third he found his burst back, the little change of pace. If I don't take him this weekend I will certainly take him the next one.
"Sunderland away will be a battle. I first have to see how people recover from tonight and then make a decision on Saturday.
"We are in a position where we want the three points and they want the three points, so it should be an interesting battle."
While Wilshere's involvement remains up in the air, Wenger professed to being surprised at Mesut Ozil's absence from the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
The German World Cup winner has been impressive in the most part and has laid on as many as 18 assists for his team-mates, but Hector Bellerin was the only Arsenal representative in an XI dominated by Leicester and Spurs stars.
"It's a surprise to me," Wenger added.
"I cannot explain it. It's the players who vote. I don't know why they did not pick him. When you are top in the assists usually that is a sign of quality that should get you a place in the top team."