Only a few weeks on from one of the low points of Arsene Wenger’s reign, Arsenal are in position to make this their finest season in a decade. A 3-1 home defeat to Monaco left Arsenal’s Champions League dreams in tatters, but the team have responded with seven straight wins in all competitions to take them up into second in the Premier League and into the last four of the FA Cup.
Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Liverpool was arguably Arsenal’s best performance yet this season, and it all but secured them a place in the Champions League for an 18th successive season, while maintaining a remote chance to at least put Chelsea under pressure at the top of the Premier League. But the win, and the manner of it, should also fuel confidence that the season will end with a trophy in their possession. With Chelsea and Manchester City going out early and Arsenal disposing of Manchester United in the quarterfinals, Liverpool are now on paper Arsenal’s chief threat to retaining the FA Cup trophy they lifted at Wembley last May.
Of course, Liverpool still have some road blocks to overcome in order to secure the final many have long since been anticipating. The Merseysiders must get through a quarterfinal replay away at Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday night before taking on Aston Villa in the semifinals. Arsenal, likewise have world to do, and must also get past Championship side Reading in their semifinal on Apr. 18. And the Gunners do not have to look far for lessons why it would be foolhardy in the extreme to take their march to a 12th FA Cup, to move ahead of Manchester United as the most successful club in the competition’s 144-year history, for granted.
For all the progress Arsenal seem to have made of late, the defeat to Monaco still looms large as an unpleasant illustration of many of the factors that led to the club going nine years without a trophy before last season’s FA Cup win. It was a match where Arsenal appeared to buckle under the pressure of being favorites and where they lost their heads when things began to go awry.
And in last season’s FA Cup, Arsenal on more than one occasion came perilously close to disaster when their name appeared already to be etched on the trophy. In the semifinals, Wenger’s men needed a late goal and a penalty shootout to get past Championship side Wigan Athletic. Then in the final they went 2-0 down in the first eight minutes before coming back to dramatically beat Hull City in extra time.
Arsenal’s record in the FA Cup now stands at an impressive 10 successive wins. Their last defeat, though, also came against major underdogs, in Blackburn, who the Gunners could yet meet in the final. And few Arsenal fans will want or needed reminding of the 2011 League Cup final when they somehow contrived to lose in farcical circumstances against relegation-bound Birmingham City.
But there is also plenty of room for optimism. Arsenal now have a rarity of an almost fully fit squad for the run-in to the end of the season and have shown greater flexibility in the way they go about trying to win matches. With Francis Coquelin adding long-required discipline at the base of the midfield, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud are all in top form and offer a potent and varied threat going forward. At their best they are difficult for any team to stop.
The key question will be whether they can maintain their current performance levels through the final weeks of the season and match their 2004-2005 season achievements of a runners-up finish in the Premier League and a win in the FA Cup. If so, the objective will swiftly turn toward putting a complete season together next term to seriously challenge for the two trophies for which top clubs likes Arsenal are truly defined: the Premier League and Champions League.