By Mark Mann-Bryans, PA
Mikel Arteta is ready to lead Arsenal into what could be the “defining moment” of their season when they travel to Tottenham on Thursday knowing victory will seal a return to the Champions League.
A brace from Eddie Nketiah was just about enough to secure a 2-1 victory over 10-man Leeds on Sunday to leave the Gunners on the cusp of ending a five-year wait for top-tier European football.
Leeds rallied despite having Luke Ayling sent off before the half-hour and pulled one back through Diego Llorente but have slipped into the Premier League bottom three.
Arsenal now sit four points clear of their neighbours in fourth place and move to within just a single point of Chelsea ahead of them.
Victory in Thursday’s rearranged north London derby would be enough to seal a Champions League berth for the first time since 2017 and Arteta is excited by the prospect.
“We are going to go for that match with the same enthusiasm that we always do but knowing that this can be a defining moment,” he said.
“It can be another layer of motivation for us to really go for it. I can’t wait for the game.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) May 8, 2022
“We have earned the right to play that game in that context. We started the season with nine or 10 players out and playing the best two teams in Europe.”
Arsenal appeared to be coasting to another win as Nketiah struck twice in the opening 10 minutes, first stealing the ball off the toe of Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier before turning home a Gabriel Martinelli cross.
That was as good as it got despite Ayling’s dismissal but Arteta refuted the suggestion his players eased up in the second half.
“It wasn’t taking our foot off the gas,” he added.
“It was just to try to play the game that we have to in that phase. We showed a lot of maturity not to rush things and concede breaks.
“But we didn’t find the net in key moments to have a different last 20 minutes.
“After that the red card presented a different match. They completely changed their behaviour and how they were set up and we had to manage that in a different way.
“For a lot of phases we did well but we needed to score the third goal and we had the chances to do that. Then the accident happened when we conceded a set-piece goal and then some nerves had to be handled.”
Leeds host Chelsea on Wednesday night, before ending the season with games at home to Brighton and away at Brentford.
Head coach Jesse Marsch will have been pleased with the response of his players at the Emirates Stadium and has backed them to give their all to remain in the Premier League.
“I think we had a really bad start and dug a hole for ourselves which we didn’t need to,” he said.
“Obviously we are in a difficult situation. We have to regroup and figure out what we can do.
“Our backs are against the wall. We are in the relegation zone but we have to fight for our lives.”