The Champions League round of 16 knockout match between Arsenal and Bayern Munich, which already promised to be an enthralling encounter, has taken on extra significance given recent events in London.
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger, who has been no stranger to speculation regarding his future over the last few years, suddenly finds himself at the heart of the storm gathering over the Emirates Stadium.
Since taking over in 1996, the Frenchman has earned himself one of the most enviable reputations in European football. His record of success up to 2005 was superb with three Premier League titles and four FA Cup victories chalked up with a team oozing in grace and style. Indeed, it was this ability to thrill and entertain that cemented Wenger’s footballing legacy more than the trophy haul itself.
But since the FA Cup triumph in 2005, Arsenal have gone empty-handed as the likes of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea have left them behind domestically, and despite an appearance in the 2006 Champions League final, they have repeatedly flattered to deceive on a yearly basis in the continent’s top club competition.
It now seems that the rumblings of discontent amongst Gunners fans and throughout the media are coming to a head and the question is now being raised: Is this the end of the Arsenal/Wenger era?
This season has been another filled with disappointment. The tone was set back in the summer, when yet again Arsenal were not convincing enough in its negotiations to persuade its top star, Robin van Persie, to remain in north London. After previous years’ losses of the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, the van Persie transfer, to Manchester United of all clubs, indicated that Arsenal were almost admitting defeat in their pursuit of success.
The players that remain have hardly exceeded any expectation either. The club are currently struggling to win the race to the top four of the Premier League, a minimum aim which the club’s hierarchy have become strangely happy to settle for.
The fans would be happy with silverware, and with the Premier League title never really within their grasp, they would readily accept a Cup win. But humiliating defeat to tiny Bradford City in the Carling Cup, followed last weekend by a demoralising home defeat to apparent no-hopers Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup 5th round have seen those dreams go up in smoke for another year.
So that leaves the ultimate prize of the Champions League as the Gunners’ only remaining chance of a trophy this season.
Standing menacingly in their way in Tuesday night’s first leg are German giants, Bayern Munich. Ordinarily this would be a tough task but when you consider the Bavarian club’s form this season, that task becomes all the more daunting.
Jupp Heynckes’ side, devastated by defeat to Chelsea on home turf in the 2012 final and having lost out in the Bundesliga to Borussia Dortmund for a second straight year, have come back with a vengeance, determined to put right what went wrong for them last season.
Their stats are impressive. They topped their Champions League group to get to this stage and in the Bundesliga they have lost just once, conceding a paltry seven goals all season and even more incredibly, just one goal against away from the Allianz Arena.
With stars like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Mandzukic, Phillip Lahm, Franck Ribery and Thomas Mueller, to name but a few, it’s no surprise that Arsenal find themselves massive underdogs to progress to the quarter finals.
But Wenger and his team are a wounded animal. The defeat to Blackburn will have stung them badly and the veteran coach will be desperate to show the world that Arsenal are nobody’s fools.
It is in the face of such stern opposition that Arsenal have often risen to their greatest heights in modern times, particularly at the Emirates. In the face of a similar assignment in 2011, they defeated the mighty Barcelona on home ground before bowing out after the return leg.
Wenger’s only hope of progressing would be to take something from Bayern tonight and the likes of Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott will have to have the game of their young lives to make this happen.
The clock seems to be ticking down for Arsene at Arsenal, and another year without a trophy could be the catalyst to change in the hotseat and the end of Arsenal’s greatest era. Could there be one last hurrah to celebrate for Wenger? Tonight’s mouth-watering clash should provide the answer.