Arsenal set for summer of sell-offs and play-offs
Arsenal are facing a difficult summer thanks to a probable Champions League play-off in August and a possible squad overhaul before then. Having surrendered third place in the Premier League to Manchester City on Tuesday night, the north Londoners may face the inconvenience of having to qualify for the Champions League through the play-off round. Should Arsenal fail to get a better result at Fulham on Sunday than City record at Bolton then they will finish fourth, requiring them to play two more games in August just to reach the group stage.
The play-off should not be desperately difficult. Arsenal have recent, successful experience of the stage. They beat Celtic 5-1 on aggregate in 2009, Twente 6-0 in 2008 and Sparta Prague 5-0 in 2007. Their place in the Uefa rankings guarantees their being seeded, which would allow them to avoid Bayern Munich, Lyons and Villarreal. Udinese, fourth in Serie A with one game left, are the most threatening non-seeds. Dynamo Kiev and Twente would offer challenging ties, while Standard Liège, AEK Athens and Rubin Kazan might provide more accommodating tests should they win their third qualifying round fixtures.
If Arsenal end up having to participate in the play-offs, it would be a good indicator of how far their season has sunk from its winter heights. In late February, Arsène Wenger's side were involved in a two-horse race for the Premier League title with Manchester United; had just beaten Barcelona at home in the Champions League last 16; and were set for a Carling Cup final against Birmingham City.
However, they lost at Wembley after gifting Birmingham the winning goal and the trauma of that defeat threw Arsenal into a spin from which they have never recovered. They were swiftly knocked out of the Champions League and FA Cup by Barcelona and Manchester United respectively. Of the 10 league games they have played since, they have won two, drawn five and lost three; dropping them down from second to fourth. This collapse of form has led to increasing discontent among fans, which manifested itself in booing after the recent home defeat to Aston Villa and draw with Liverpool.
One hope for unhappy supporters is that Wenger will retreat from his purist's approach to both tactics and signings. Arsenal have played 4-2-3-1 all season and Wenger admitted last week that "against the teams who only came to defend, maybe we have dropped too many points". There is a sense that they lack variety in attack, as well as the now-traditional absences of an authoritative centre-back and a midfield enforcer.
To those ends, Arsenal are thought to be considering moves for Bolton centre-half Gary Cahill as well as Paris St-Germain defender Mamadou Sakho. In midfield Scott Parker is a key target, and his signing would represent an about-turn given Wenger's recent reluctance to buy players in their 30s. Many of the disappointing fringe players are likely to leave, including Denilson, Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Eboué and Andrei Arshavin.
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