London: Arsenal striker Theo Walcott has described his side's home game against West Ham United on Wednesday as "massive" as the north Londoners attempt to stay in touch with those above them in the Premier League. For the second season in a row, Arsene Wenger's side move towards the finishing straight with title dreams extinguished and even off the pace in the battle to safeguard their long-standing membership of England's "top four" club.
One point from their last three Premier League games, including defeats by Manchester City and Chelsea, have thrown freezing cold water over Arsenal's December league revival when big wins against Newcastle United and Reading offered hope of better things to come for the second half of the season. Sunday's 2-1 defeat at Chelsea left the Gunners seven points behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, the local rivals who Arsenal pipped to Champions League qualification last season after bridging a similar gap.
Arsenal could also be trailing fifth-placed Everton by six points come Wednesday while Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion have the same 34 points as Arsene Wenger's sixth-placed team.
"There are a lot of teams that have got stronger this year, so we need to step on the gas," Walcott, who finally agreed a new lucrative contract last week, told Arsenal's website. We don't want to be playing catch-up. We want to get points on the board as soon as possible. We have a tough game at home against West Ham, so we need to be ready. It is a massive game, we have home support and we need to start clocking up points there. We have been hot and cold at home of late, so we must be very positive and if we show the commitment that we did in the second half (against Chelsea) we should be fine."
To put Arsenal's current standing in perspective, they are 22 points behind leaders Manchester United. The club used to enter this period of the campaign fighting United for the Premier League title but this season they had already given up the chase before the leaves had fallen off the trees and the first snows arrived.
While they still harbour hopes of progress in the FA Cup and the Champions League, in which they face the daunting challenge of Bayern Munich, there is nothing like the prospect of finishing lower than fourth in the league to focus minds. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League for 15 consecutive seasons, but where as it used to be as Premier League winners or runners-up, in more recent seasons they were scrambling for third and fourth.
With the revenue and clout in the transfer market that qualification brings, Wenger knows the stakes are high.
"We have lost two big games in the past week," he said after the defeat by Chelsea. We are in a position where you are of course concerned by where we are. We cannot afford to drop more points if we want to be in the top four and the Champions League next season. We have a big game against West Ham on Wednesday - it's our game in hand in the Premier League and it's vital we get a win."
Arsenal were woeful for the opening 25 minutes against Chelsea and Wenger is demanding a fast start.
"You cannot test the water and then decide what you do. We have to start on all cylinders from the first minute," he said.