FA Cup can save Arsene Wenger’s season again – but is it enough?

Drawing with Spurs brought a brief moment of elation forArsenal but the truth is they can’t win the title. Tom Adams says the FA Cup is now hugely important, again.
Down to 10 men, losing 2-1 away at Tottenham, with all the apocalyptic implications that result would have in a match breathlessly described as the most important North London derby ever, Arsenal would have understandably felt an overwhelming sense of elation – and no little relief – when Alexis Sanchez drilled a shot past Hugo Lloris to rescue a draw from the jaws of disaster.
Still, a more sober appraisal of the weekend’s football results may very well invite a different feeling. If Sanchez’s first league goal in five months dug Arsenal out of a hole, they promptly fell into another, almost as deep, from which there will almost certainly be no escape if recent history is any guide.celebrates scoring the equaliser for Arsenal against Tottenham – Reuters
Arsenal may very well overcome the three-points that separate them from Tottenham after hauling back their local rivals with that 76-minute equaliser. It is hardly an insurmountable obstacle with nine games remaining of the season, particularly with Spurs distracted by an upcoming Europa League last-16 clash with Borussia Dortmund.
But Arsenal will almost certainly not overcome the eight-point lead leadersLeicester opened up over them as a result of that 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane,Claudio Ranieri’s side securing a vital 1-0 win at Watford in Saturday’s late kick-off. The last rites on Arsenal’s Premier League campaign were possibly read no more than eight miles down the road from their own training ground in London Colney.
Why the scepticism? Firstly, the scale of Arsenal’s challenge was made apparent before the weekend when it was revealed that no team had ever won the Premier League from outside the top two places with 10 games remaining. Arsenal were third then and are still third now, with one fewer game with which to defy 20 years of history.
Secondly, there is not even a sliver of encouragement to be found in Leicester’s remaining fixtures, unencumbered, as they have been since January 20, by any competition other than the Premier League. Newcastle (h), Crystal Palace (a),Southampton (h), Sunderland (a), West Ham (h), Swansea (h), Manchester United (a), Everton (h), Chelsea (a). It could barely look any better had Ranieri hacked into the fixture computer himself.
The bare facts of the matter are that even if Arsenal win all nine of their remaining games, a huge assumption to make in itself, they will need Leicester to lose three, or 33.3%, of their remaining fixtures. So far this season they have lost only three of their 29 Premier League games – a loss percentage of 10.3%. Very little is impossible in football but based on the lessons of history and the particular context of this season, it cannot be anything other than vastly improbable that Arsenal will beat Leicester to the title.
It’s a grim lesson for Arsenal. Back-to-back defeats by Manchester United and Swansea City and an inability to hold onto a hard-earned lead at Tottenham, with Francis Coquelin’s red card fatally loosening their grip on the match, have effectively ended their once promising title challenge. Wenger may protest that“the Premier League is far from over” but a title which looked eminently winnable has slipped away these past two weeks. If Manchester City were to win their game in hand, Arsenal would drop to fourth.
Their Champions League campaign looks similarly doomed. Only once in European Cup history has a team ever overturned a two-goal loss in the first leg at home to go through – Ajax against Benfica in 1969, and even then they needed a play-off after a 4-4 aggregate score – it is safe to assume that Arsenal will not recover from their 2-0 defeat to Barcelona, one of the all-time great teams, and will therefore be eliminated from Europe.
So for the third time in three seasons, it seems almost certain that the ultimate value of Arsenal’s campaign will be determined by their ability to salvage something and win the FA Cup. As such, Tuesday’s fifth-round replay with Hull City is assuming great importance, and the identity of the opponents is fitting.
In 2014, a humiliating 6-0 defeat by Chelsea on March 22 started a run of four games without a win in the Premier League, ending for good a title challenge which was already on its last legs. The mood amongst supporters was mutinous, no more so than with Arsenal 2-0 down to Hull in the FA Cup final after eight minutes. But Arsenal’s comeback to win 3-2 in extra-time ended the club’s nine-year trophy drought and, perhaps, prolonged Wenger’s reign.
There is a convincing school of thought that had Arsenal’s wait for a trophy extended to a full decade, the atmosphere would have been so poisonous that Wenger would have been left with no other option but to quit. “I don’t know, honestly, I don’t know,” he recently said when asked if that would have been his final game as manager had Hull held onto their lead. Now, similar questions may be asked once again. Wenger has already shown his frustration with renewed enquiries as to his position.
There was no such suspense last season as Arsenal thumped Aston Villa 4-0 in an invigorating performance. It was Wenger’s sixth FA Cup win – the joint most of any manager – and put Arsenal clear on 12 wins, ahead of Manchester United’s 11. There was no disguising its historical significance, and the streets of Islington were lined for a second year in succession as Arsenal staged another victory parade. But even in this moment of triumph, talk was already turning to a genuine assault on the Premier League in 2015-16.
“The Premier League has to be the next target for us,” said Theo Walcott, scorer of the opening goal at Wembley, even as he digested the success. “That’s two FA Cup wins now but this is one of the best squads we have had at Arsenal so we should be achieving more. We need to start well in the Premier League next year.”
Winning the FA Cup is a fine achievement and almost every English club would say that lifting the trophy at Wembley constitutes a great season. For two years it has sustained Wenger – staved off criticism when otherwise his record would have attracted more attention, possibly saved his job – but will it be enough this time, when senior players made it so abundantly clear that a title tilt was the priority?
Becoming the first manager to win the FA Cup three times in a row since 1886 would give Wenger another prominent place in English football’s history. Winning it might also be the only thing that can save his season. Again.
This time round, however, even that might not be enough to end those “boring” questions about his future.

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