Arsenal v Wigan FA Cup semi-final: Collapsing Gunners face test of nerve at Wembley
Failure to reach the final is almost unthinkable for the Gunners after seeing their title challenge falter
Tuesday 08 April 2014
This Arsenal season, which promised so much, is stuttering towards what could be its traumatic climax.
Arsenal have a respite of sorts from their collapsing league form this weekend. They are preparing to return to Wembley for the first time since that dramatic afternoon in February 2011 when they were beaten with the last kick of the game by Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City in the League Cup final.
That 2-1 defeat still seems to overshadow everything that has happened since, coming in an especially trying period when Arsenal went out of four competitions in four weeks, revealing that the old battling character and burning will of the “Invincibles” side had gone.
Since then, Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny and Kieran Gibbs have grown up and new players have come in, many older and more experienced – Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla – and one, Mesut Özil, genuinely brilliant. The team is slightly different now: slower, stronger, slightly safer, less gung-ho.
But are Arsenal any better? Are they much closer to winning the league, or the Champions League, than they were in 2011, or 2008, or 2006? It is difficult to make the case.
The 3-0 defeat at Everton on Sunday allowed control of the race for fourth place in the Premier League to slip from their hands. They might still finish there – Arsenal’s run-in is straightforward, Everton’s is difficult – but that is almost not the point any more.
In their first league meeting with Everton, in December, a late equaliser from Gerard Deulofeu stopped Arsenal from going seven points clear at the top. Since then there has been a slow drift back to their true level, and now Arsenal need favours to stop Everton from doing what Spurs never could and denying them Champions League football.
Arsenal have now lost at five of the top seven and it is remarkable that Sunday’s 3-0 reverse was the second narrowest margin of defeat from those games. No matter how many positions and points they finish from the top this season, it will not tell the true story of the gulf between them and the best. That is to be found in these numbers: 6-3, 5-1, 6-0 and now 3-0.
It is difficult to guess whether it will be a relief or not that they look down, rather than up, this weekend. Their focus, instead, is Wigan Athletic and their FA Cup semi-final on Saturday. Wigan are clearly a good cup side – look at their two defeats of Manchester City – and in excellent form since Uwe Rösler replaced Owen Coyle as manager.
Arsène Wenger said on Sunday night that his side were lacking confidence, charisma and belief – and that is the problem. These big games are often personality tests, and the fear is that – just as they did three years ago – Arsenal could fail theirs on Saturday.
Speaking last month, Wenger left open the possibility that he would not, in fact, sign a new contract at Arsenal. “Unless I decide otherwise,” he said, when asked if he would definitely stay. “I want to have a feeling coming out of the season that I have done the maximum for the club.”
Even if the maximum for Arsenal now only seems to be fourth place, it is far from clear that is how this season will end.
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