On prend les mêmes et on recommence. That is what Robert Pires feared as he walked off the pitch after Arsenal's 2-1 defeat by Chelsea in the Champions' League quarter-final second leg. "I had this awful feeling we were about to repeat the same mistakes as the season before," the French midfielder says. "I think a lot of us were worried we might finish the season without a trophy again." Cue Patrick Vieira.
The Arsenal captain may not be the loudest on the pitch, but off it, especially in difficult times, he is not afraid to be heard. As his dejected team-mates traipsed back into their Highbury changing room following their first defeat by Chelsea in 17 matches, Vieira decided to rally the troops. "He would have been entitled to tell us how disappointed he was with our performance," Pires recalls, "but, no, instead he started to praise us. His view was that we should be proud of having reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the quarter-finals of the Champions' League. He wanted us to keep our chins up and make sure we did not let the Premiership slip away, too."
The pep talk worked. The Arsenal players have put the double cup disappointment behind them and kept their unbeaten Premiership challenge on course. Providing Chelsea fail to overcome Newcastle in the early-afternoon match today, a win - or perhaps even a draw - for Arsenal against their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur would secure them the title by six o'clock this evening. How the Arsenal players would relish lifting the trophy at White Hart Lane, to follow in the studmarks of the Double-winning side of 1971.
Avoiding defeat would also extend Arsenal's unbeaten run to 34 games and delay the celebrations by no more than six days, when they entertain Birmingham City at Highbury. "Obviously, we would love to wrap up the title as soon as possible," Pires says, "but there is no panic. The important thing is to win. The timing comes second."
And the unbeaten record? "To be honest," Pires says, "we are not thinking about it as much as the title. Of course, going a whole season without losing would be an incredible achievement, particularly in this very challenging and physical League, but the priority is to win the Premiership. Anything more is a bonus."
With Arsenal poised to cross the finishing line, pencils are being sharpened for the obligatory end-of-term reports. Most observers will no doubt look favourably on a side who have, at times, played mesmerising football. Many, though, will forever look upon 2003-04 as the season of what might have been. Why does a campaign that promised so much in early spring feel like a relative failure three weeks later? "We are just as disappointed as anyone else," Pires concedes. "We're hurting, too, but the truth is that sometimes in football you lose games; we have to accept that.
"The reason our two recent defeats stand out so much is because they came in big knockout matches against big teams like Man U [in the FA Cup semi-finals] and Chelsea [in the Champions' League quarters]. But that happens, especially in these one-off games where everything can change in a split second. We could just as easily have won those two ties. The margins are very tight at that level."
Despite the bravado, one can detect a tinge of regret in Pires's voice. "Look," he says, "we felt we had a great opportunity to win three trophies this season. We knew that whoever won our FA Cup semi-final would have one hand on the trophy, and we know we missed a trick against Chelsea, too, not least because Real Madrid were knocked out by Monaco." Chelsea's débâcle in Monte Carlo on Tuesday night only frustrated the Arsenal players still further. "It's the same thing with the FA Cup, because we would have fancied our chances against Millwall. It's sad, but we must not be too downbeat. Pat [Vieira] told us to be proud and he was right, because the main reason why everybody notices our rare defeats is that we are expected to win all our matches. We have set such high standards that any blip stands out."
By reaching the latter stages of four competitions (the Gunners also lost to Middlesbrough in the semi-finals of the League Cup), Arsenal unwittingly created a rod for their own backs. "If you set out to be the best, then everyone wants to gun you down," Pires says. "That's something we have to get used to living with. Both United and Chelsea were more determined than ever ahead of those Cup games. Perhaps they were more desperate for the win than us. It's unfortunate, but we'll learn from our mistakes and come back stronger than ever next season."
Behind the scenes, the internal investigations have already begun. The Arsenal manager is rarely guilty of errors of judgement, but one wonders whether Arsène Wenger was right to leave his, and the country's, best striker, Thierry Henry, on the bench for the FA Cup semi-final against United? The 1-0 defeat would suggest not. Wenger insisted the player was not fully fit, but why, then, take a risk by bringing him on for the final 20 minutes?
The decision was all the more questionable because Henry then had his worst night of the season three days later in the Champions' League quarter-final defeat to Chelsea. Two selection decisions do not a season make, but they do help to illustrate quite how much Arsenal rely on Henry.
Pires would not be drawn on the issue, preferring instead to focus on the positives. "The manager has made some fantastic decisions for this club over the years," the midfielder says, "and again this season. It was thanks to him that we recovered from the 3-0 home loss to Inter Milan [in the opening game of the group stages of the Champions' League back in September]. People said we looked finished then, but we knuckled down, got our act together in training and then went to the San Siro to win 5-1 in the return fixture. That proved we stay united in defeat and in victory."
This season has also demonstrated that the players are fast learners. Unlike last year, when they dominated the first part of the Premiership campaign before tailing off dramatically in the final few weeks, Arsenal have stayed the course this time around. "Hopefully we will show the same willingness to improve next season," Pires adds. "If we do, then who knows what we can achieve."
SEASON OF ACCOLADES
The Henry phenomenon: One statistic tells the story - 29 goals with five games left. Only Alan Shearer (three times), Andy Cole and Kevin Phillips have scored 30 times in a Premiership season. Cole holds the record with 34.
Two-one to the Arsenal: No more one-nil - they have only won twice like that (v Blackburn and Southampton). Most common scoreline (eight times) has been 2-1, followed by 2-0 (four times), highlighting their increased strike-power.
Familiarity breeds contentment: Jens Lehmann (33), Thierry Henry (32), Kolo Touré (31), Sol Campbell and Robert Pires (30) have played in 92 per cent or more games.
The winning habit: Arsenal's unbeaten run of 35 matches is a top-flight record, eclipsing Leeds's run of 34. They were last beaten in the League, coincidentally by Leeds, last May.
His master's voice: Arsène Wenger has won the Barclaycard Manager of the Month award three times.