Sunderland 2 – 0 Arsenal
It’s been a bad week for Arsenal fans. A crushing defeat in Milan, followed by a comprehensive loss at Sunderland, and the evaporation of any remaining hopes of bringing home silverware. Arsene clearly broke a mirror in 2005, and good behaviour has not granted him any time off fortune’s sentence: it will now be seven long years without a trophy.
Yesterday Arsenal were beaten on a ground where just one week earlier they had been victorious. The matchwinner on that occasion, Thierry Henry, was conspicuous by his absence, and a succession of defensive injuries stacked the odds against us. Nevertheless we were outrun, outfought, and occasionally outplayed by a fresher and patently more motivated Sunderland side.
There is no point masking our disappointment. The FA Cup represented our most realistic chance of glory this season, and the draw could certainly have been more cruel, but this is an Arsenal side showing early yet familiar symptoms of the annual end-of-season collapse. We have played ten games since January 1st, losing five. Injuries are mounting fast and belief is fading faster.
There were some fans declaring that yesterday marked the end of our season. They could not be more wrong. To be out of the cup is tremendous blow, but Arsenal still have their biggest prize to play for: fourth place.
I have never subscribed to Arsene’s view that a top four finish is equivalent to claiming silverware. It’s nonsense. There is no explosion of joy, no entry in the record books, no trophy. But it remains absolutely vital. As bad as things are, falling out of the top four would be disastrous. It’s not a prize – it’s a necessity.
I’m gutted about the defeats to Milan and Sunderland, but if I had to choose between going out of the cups or suffering two league defeats, I think I’d choose the former. To win the FA Cup would be fantastic, but I’m not sure it’d be enough to keep Robin van Persie, or attract major talent to augment (or indeed replace) him. Fourth place might.
I don’t see the point in discussing the future of Arsene Wenger now – whatever your opinion, everyone is surely unanimous in their agreement that, for better or worse, he will be here until the end of the season. If he and the club decide to part ways then, I’d far rather we were able to offer a new a manager a brief to rebuild with the economic support and talent-tempting allure that Champions League brings.
In the light of recent results, some supporters have declared that we have “no chance” of achieving a top four spot. They are, of course, wrong. Take a glance at the league table – we’re the present incumbents. Arsenal have been incredibly fortunate that in a year when we’ve spent much of the time in disarray, our closest rivals (Liverpool and Chelsea) have conspired to be similarly calamitous.
Our next three league games see us face Tottenham, Liverpool, and Newcastle. As painful as our experiences at Milan and Sunderland were, I’d happily accept those defeats if fate were able to trade them for nine points from those forthcoming fixtures.
If, however, we lose, to Spurs next week, all hell could break lose. The day before, Chelsea and Newcastle both have relatively easy home games, and defeat to our rivals could leave us in sixth place and coming off the back of three consecutive defeats.
There have been big London derbies before. For Arsene Wenger, there has never been one quite as big as this.