Safety first as Arsenal try to cling on to fourth place in Premier League table with Everton closing in

Flamini says Gunners must start with strong defence against sides like City

Arsenal are in a fight that they did not seek. Having chased the title all season – they were top of the Premier League just eight games ago – they have slipped behind the three real contenders at the top. And while their old rivals Tottenham Hotspur are lagging, Everton have all the momentum.

Arsène Wenger's side have won two of their last seven games. Everton have won their last four. Arsenal are six points clear of them in fourth place, but Everton have a game in hand. And the two meet at Goodison Park on Sunday 6 April.

That could be the day Everton overtake Arsenal, if Everton win at Craven Cottage on Sunday and Arsenal lose to Manchester City the day before. That fixture recently looked like a potential title-decider but now Arsenal's targets have changed.

Mathieu Flamini admitted after Tuesday's 2-2 home draw with Swansea City, which hinged on his last-minute own goal, that it would "be very difficult" for Arsenal to win the Premier League this season.

But they need to get something out of City and Flamini knows how difficult it will be. Arsenal have conceded 17 goals in their three games at the Etihad, Stamford Bridge and Anfield and Flamini made clear they need to be defensively better on Saturday, which will be even harder with stalwart centre-back Laurent Koscielny still injured.

"We have to be strong defensively first of all because that is very important when you play against a big team like that who are a very offensive team," Flamini said. "After, we have enough quality in this team to find a goal."

Arsenal have a worrying habit of starting badly – they were 3-0 down within 17 minutes at both Anfield and Stamford Bridge. City showed on Tuesday that they do not need time to ease into games, after Edin Dzeko put them ahead against Manchester United after 45 seconds. So Flamini has warned his team-mates that they cannot afford to wake up when City have already started scoring.

"When you play a big game, you cannot lose it in the first 10 or 15 minutes because it is not good afterwards for the rest of the game," Flamini warned. "So we have to be focused, be ready for this kind of game because they are battles. You have to win the duels, win the fight and then play your football."

The lack of conviction and leadership has been worrying at Arsenal and was further brought into focus late on Tuesday when Paul Scholes – who knows a thing or two about a successful midfield – lambasted them on Sky Sports. "It's a midfield without discipline," Scholes said. He also added: "There's no leaders, no Patrick Vieira or a Tony Adams."

Flamini has slightly improved Arsenal in that regard but they are still not showing the mental strength required to stand up to the biggest sides. They are short of several of their fast, incisive players now, with Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere all injured, but there is a lack of conviction that afflicts the team as well. Flamini insisted that they are improving but need more talkers in their rather anonymous midfield.

"I feel that there are more leaders on the pitch, more personality, more character," Flamini said. "That's very important because it was maybe missing a bit in the past couple of years but I feel like this year we have more, and it is very important to keep going in this direction."

The race for fourth

P/W/D/L/F/A/Pts

4 Arsenal 31/19/6/6/55/36/63

5 Everton 30/16/9/5/46/30/57

The run-ins:

Arsenal

Sat Manchester City (h)

6 Apr Everton (a)

15 Apr West Ham (h)

19 Apr Hull (a)

28 Apr Newcastle (h)

3 May West Bromwich (h)

11 May Norwich (a)

Everton

Sun Fulham (a)

6 Apr Arsenal (h)

12 Apr Sunderland (a)

16 Apr Crystal Palace (h)

20 Apr Manchester Utd (h)

26 Apr Southampton (a)

3 May Manchester City (h)

11 May Hull (a)

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