First it was the Premier League, then the Carling Cup and on Wednesday it was the Champions League: with the prospect of success in so many competitions slipping from Arsenal's grasp it was no surprise that yesterday Arsene Wenger announced the FA Cup was at the centre of his thoughts.
Arsenal play Sunderland in the fifth round this evening and given the 4-0 defeat to Milan on Wednesday, and Wenger's surrender afterwards, today's game has taken on a significance it would have been denied had the team been challenging in the league and in Europe. Defeat at the Stadium of Light would, aside from the battle for a top-four place, as good as bring the curtain down on Arsenal's season.
Wenger did not give his usual Friday press conference yesterday but instead consented to be interviewed by a member of the club's staff. So we can only guess at the exact degree of surprise he expressed when asked the question whether he would play a full-strength team today. "Yes of course, it will be full strength," he said. But it has not always been a full-strength Arsenal team that has contested the FA Cup. What has changed this week is not the relevance of the competition in the eyes of the Arsenal manager, but the circumstances surrounding his embattled club.
There are only two feasible targets left for Wenger this season: to finish fourth and to win the FA Cup. Barring a miracle in the return leg against Milan on 6 March, success in both those objectives would still represent an uplifting end to the season for Arsenal. Wenger said yesterday: "I will refresh [the team] a bit [today] because some players have played many games recently but we will do the maximum to win this game. It [the FA Cup] is more important now. It was always important. It is the next game and, because we had a big disappointment in the last game, it becomes more important. But the FA Cup was always one of my priorities and coming off the Milan game it becomes even more important."
It also helps that this week, Wenger can afford to be a friend of the FA Cup. He has no midweek game and his next match is a week tomorrow against Tottenham. As for the FA Cup being "one" of his priorities, that is puzzling. Any leading English club can only entertain a maximum of five objectives – success in Europe, the three domestic prizes and a top-four finish. The FA Cup is either a priority or it is not.
Understandably, Wenger has had to make tough choices in the past. What would have been an interesting question to put to him yesterday would be whether he rated wining the FA Cup, which would be the club's first trophy in seven years, as more important than fourth place and another season in the Champions League. A difficult call.
Can Arsenal win the FA Cup? With both Manchester clubs eliminated, much of it will surely come down to whether Wenger is prepared to gamble on playing his best team today and, should they win, in subsequent rounds. There must be a strong temptation to rest Robin Van Persie, but what sort of message would that send out to his team-mates about the manager's true feelings towards the competition?
Wenger said that in the past, Arsenal's ambitions in the league and Europe had got in the way of success in the FA Cup. "They collide a bit and schedule-wise you see that again [this week]. You go to Milan, you go to Sunderland. Especially after what happened on Wednesday night it is important to have a great performance."
Wenger has been resting players in the FA Cup for years. He even did so when he last won the competition in 2005, the last of a run of four finals in five years, three of which Arsenal won. Patrick Vieira was rested in the fifth-round game with Sheffield United but called back for the replay, which Arsenal won on penalties.
The defining game came in 2006. Four days before a fourth-round game against Bolton Wanderers, Wenger's team were taken to extra time and lost the tie to Wigan in the semi-final of the Carling Cup. Against Bolton, Wenger left out Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann, Lauren, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Gilberto Silva and Cesc Fabregas and lost. Most years since then, Wenger has rested players and been eliminated from the FA Cup. In 2007, Fabregas and Lehmann were rested in the fifth-round replay with Blackburn and Arsenal lost. In the fifth-round tie against Manchester United in 2008, Emmanuel Adebayor, Mathieu Flamini and Gael Clichy were left out and Arsenal lost.
The biggest risk Wenger took was in the fifth-round tie with Stoke City two years ago when he picked a team that included Francis Coquelin, Craig Eastmond, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Carlos Vela and lost. In the following three league games, Arsenal took just one point and lost to both Chelsea and Manchester United.
Until the Stoke FA Cup tie, they had been undefeated in nine games, seven of which they had won. That consequence of a defeat today was also on Wenger's mind yesterday. "What is important now, first of all, not only the FA Cup is at stake but as well the response, and the mental attitude of our team is at stake as well," he said.
When it was put to Wenger that Henry had said the FA Cup had got the best from Arsenal in the past, his answer appeared to be that of a man mourning a lost era. "We had a team that could go and win everywhere and when you can do that you get into the finals," Wenger said. "Sometimes you lose the finals but most of the time we won finals. We had the potential to do it."
"We are fourth and have an opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It is important we are up for that and do not feel sorry for ourselves because of that performance [in Milan]." Put like that the season does not sound too bad, but there is a danger that by tonight it could be a lot worse.
Firing Blanks: Gunners' cup woes since FA Cup win in 2005
FA Cup Fourth round: Bolton 1-0 Arsenal
League Cup Semi-final: 1st leg: Wigan 1-0 Arsenal
2nd leg: Arsenal 2-1 Wigan (Wigan won on away goals)
Champions League Final: Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal
FA Cup Fifth round: Blackburn 1-0 Arsenal
League Cup Final: Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
Champions League First knockout round: 1st leg: PSV Eindhoven 1-0 Arsenal, 2nd leg: Arsenal 1-1 PSV Eindhoven
FA Cup Fifth round: Man Utd 4-0 Arsenal
League Cup Semi-final: 1st leg: Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
2nd leg: Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 Arsenal
Champions League Quarter-final: 1st leg: Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool
2nd leg: Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal
FA Cup Semi-final: Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea
League Cup Fifth round: Burnley 2-0 Arsenal
Champions League Semi-final: 1st leg: Manchester Utd 1-0 Arsenal, 2nd leg: Arsenal 1-3 Manchester Utd
FA Cup Fourth round: Stoke City 3-1 Arsenal
League Cup Fifth round: Manchester City 3-0 Arsenal
Champions League Quarter-final: 1st leg: Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona, 2nd leg: Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal
FA Cup Sixth round: Man Utd 2-0 Arsenal
League Cup Final: Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal
Champions League Round of 16: 1st leg: Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona, 2nd leg: Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal
FA Cup Fifth round v Sunderland (a) today
League Cup Quarter-final: Arsenal 0-1 Manchester City
Champions League R16: 1st leg: Milan 4-0 Arsenal
2nd leg: Tues 6 March