While mathematically it’s not yet confirmed, the faces of the Arsenal players at the end of their 3-0 defeat by Brighton on Sunday made it clear they knew the Premier League title race was over.
Some stood staring into the distance, others sat on the pitch and looked at the ground as their opponents raced over to the away end to celebrate with their jubilant fans.
This game felt like the last-chance saloon for Arsenal. They still needed the unlikely scenario of Manchester City slipping up in their remaining three games, but a win was a must if they were to stay in the hunt.
Instead, they capitulated as Brighton scored three second-half goals to strengthen their fairytale bid to secure European football next season.
The loss means Arsenal are four points behind leaders Manchester City and have just two games remaining. Pep Guardiola’s side know a win against Chelsea at the Etihad next Sunday means the title will be theirs again.
“It is going to be very difficult now, we have to be honest. It is tough to take,” Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard told Sky Sports.
“It is not a good feeling at the moment. The way we played, particularly in the second half, I don’t know what happened to be honest.
“It feels like there is no hope now.”
Arsenal had been the better side in the first half as ex-Brighton forward Leandro Trossard hit the bar, but Julio Enciso gave the Seagulls the lead six minutes into the second half and the Gunners got progressively worse as they realised their chances of staying in the title race were rapidly diminishing.
Substitute Deniz Undav pounced on a deflected clearance four minutes from time to put victory out of Arsenal’s reach before Pervis Estupinan rubbed salt in the wound deep in stoppage time.
By then, many Arsenal fans had left, crushed that the one glimmer of hope of winning their first Premier League title since 2004 was all but extinguished.
“We have to apologise for the performance in the second half. It was not acceptable,” said Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta.
“Mathematically, it’s still possible but now it’s impossible to think about it. We need to digest the result and the performance in the second half, understand why and have a different reaction.”
Earlier in the day, Manchester City had comfortably beaten Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park to extend their winning run in the Premier League to 11 games.
It was a result that former Manchester United captain Gary Neville felt had delivered a psychological blow to the Arsenal players before their game.
“I think that’s it finished,” the Sky Sports pundit said of the title race.
“It was a difficult game for Manchester City on paper but they strolled it and that has had an impact on those Arsenal players.
“It has been too much for them over the past few weeks. This moment was always going to come where Arsenal find it difficult and they haven’t been able to get through it.”
April started with a 4-1 thrashing of Leeds that moved Arsenal eight points clear at the top of the Premier League but the month ended with a defeat by the same scoreline at Manchester City to put Guardiola’s side in the driving seat.
April also saw them throw away two two-goal leads – to Liverpool and West Ham – as well as going 2-0 down at home to Southampton after just 14 minutes.
Those dropped points ultimately proved pivotal, and former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira believes the Gunners need more leaders in their side to help them through such difficult moments.
“You want leadership and he [Odegaard] has been the technical leader on the field but they are missing a physical leader, a leader who can get at the back of players when they are not performing at the right level,” he said.
“They need a team that is more competitive. You look at the physical attributes of Manchester City and they are bigger and stronger than Arsenal.
“It’s up to Mikel to address that in the summer.”
Arsenal have spent much of the season at the top of the table so it is understandable many of their fans will be hurting right now over a missed opportunity.
But there has still been big progress, with Arteta’s side sealing a return to the Champions League for the first time in six years.
“Arsenal don’t have the strength and depth of Manchester City,” former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane said. “They have come up short. It’s as simple as that.
“They need to get the right players with the right character so if they get in this position again, pole position, they will have a chance to see it through.”
Arsenal have two games left of the current campaign before a huge summer begins in which they will look to recruit the right players to ensure they are better equipped to overcome the hurdles they stumbled at this season.