With Arsenal’s hopes of a first European Cup dashed for another season, focus now returns sharply to ending a general trophy drought that stretches back nine years. There will be no time for Arsene Wenger’s side to mourn their disappointment with the next six matches set to decide the fate of their campaign.
Arsenal avoided humiliation but were ultimately outclassed over two legs by a relentless Bayern Munich side to exit the Champions League in the Round of 16 for the fourth straight year. There was a degree of inevitability about the outcome once Arsenal had fallen to defeat at Napoli to relinquish top spot in their group before being handed the toughest of draws. Still, while coming up short, the team should maintain a sense of momentum heading into a crucial run of fixtures.
An unexpected and derailing defeat to Stoke City at the start of the month means the long-time leaders of the Premier League now trail Chelsea by seven points -- with a game in hand -- and will need to finish this season as they did their last in order to emerge with the title. It was a victory in vain against Bayern that spurred Arsenal to finish the last league campaign with eight wins and two draws to overhaul Tottenham for fourth place. After last night’s draw in the Allianz Arena, Lukasz Fabianski explained that he hoped the performance would give his side a similar boost this time around.
Yet it must be said that Arsenal’s run-in is far more testing this time around. After local foes Tottenham host them on Sunday, Arsenal face title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City in quick succession, either side of a meeting with Swansea City. Matches against Manchester United, who beat Arsenal at Old Trafford earlier in the season and an Everton side, which has given the Gunners trouble in both games between the sides this season, then follow. There is little room for error.
While daunting, the fixtures against Chelsea and Manchester City can be viewed as giving Arsenal the chance to gain direct ground on their competitors. Win those and they are right back in the hunt. If they are to do so then a fit Aaron Ramsey playing in the manner he did to start the campaign could well be needed. The midfielder’s energy and runs from midfield have been sorely missed, not least by Mesut Ozil. His probable return against Tottenham cannot come quickly enough.
The odds remain firmly stacked against Arsenal landing the title this season. As their form has tailed off of late, Chelsea, while still flawed, are now winning games with ruthless efficiency. What’s more, Arsenal have again struggled against the big teams this season. A dramatic reversal of that trend is hard to foresee in the coming weeks. Still, while the championship may prove beyond Arsenal, if they can remain right in the running until the end of the campaign then that should at least be taken as a major step forward and a significant boost heading into the summer and the season ahead.
That feeling of optimism will be even more prevalent if Arsenal can lift the trophy that undeniably provides the best opportunity to end their drought this season -- the FA Cup.
Celebrations among Arsenal fans will surely have been as vigorous as they were for those of Wigan Athletic when the Championship side knocked out Manchester City on Sunday, with the winners already lined up for a semifinal meeting with the Gunners.
With a second-tier club the opposition in the last four and a clash with either newly promoted Premier League outfit Hull City or League One side Sheffield United awaiting in the final, Arsenal can have no excuses if they fail to hoist the cup aloft. Having already gotten past Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton to get this far, the hard work has been done. The task now is to avoid complacency.
That has certainly been something that Arsenal have fallen foul of in the competition in the past, with their manager’s team selections often in part to blame. Now with the stakes so high, it is hard to envisage such mistakes being repeated.
The FA Cup is certainly not the trophy that Wenger craves. He is right to have said that it is the now decade-long wait for a Premier League trophy that really matters. The league is the true mark of a team. The Champions League is the pinnacle of world soccer. In contrast, the FA Cup is something of a bonus. However, along with giving the fans a day to remember, lifting the trophy will also help alter the psychology of everyone at the club.
The signing of Ozil proved an effective message that the club was ready to compete at the highest level once more. Winning the FA Cup would show everyone, not least their own players, that Arsenal are winners again.