Two semi-final places look assured, two remain up for grabs
By this time tomorrow, we will know who Arsenal would meet in the semi-finals. Getting there will require a top class performance on Wednesday. Overall, this week couldn’t be more meaningful. With the league campaign a disappointment, the Gunners still have a chance to finish with valuable silverware this season. Whether or not we continue our quest for the cup double depends on how we fare this week.
Last season, April 8, Liverpool eliminate Arsenal from the Champions League in unfortunate, if not dubious fashion. Five days late, April 13, Manchester United come back from a one goal deficit with a free kick and a questionable penalty to beat Arsenal 2-1. During that five day period Arsenal’s European and League ambitions were effectively ended. It was an exciting week that ended badly. This week, our two remaining competitions of note could be taken from us. We must learn the lessons of last season and fight with every ounce of courage to prevent that from happening.
Cesc, in particular, must remind the players what that five day period felt like. This is where his captaincy really matters. It was such an incredible season that ended in such bitter disappointment. Most of the key players this season were there when it all went wrong. It would be easy to use injury problems as an excuse for failure, but excuses won’t soften the blow of elimination. Cesc must emphasis to these players that Arsenal’s first trophies in four years are there to be won. Last summer the distraction of international play probably helped alleviate the bitter feelings for many Arsenal players. But this season would be a long and painful one if once again ended without reward.
However, there’s more to this week than winning. The future of Arsenal is somewhat tied into these results. As the landscape of European football changes, Arsenal are clearly not a titan in the transfer market. Big money owners at Chelsea and Manchester City, along with the usual suspects like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and AC Milan have made it more difficult to acquire top class players, but also increased the challenge of retaining the players we already have. An Arsenal team that challenges for top honors at home and abroad can keep it’s best players and even attract new ones. But an Arsenal team that can’t win trophies and doesn’t have the financial clout of other massive clubs could easily slip into very precarious position. Envision a team that can’t keep Cesc, or Van Persie, or Adebayor, and can’t attract top players to replace them. It’s a bleak outlook indeed.
I’m not suggesting that the demise of Arsenal as top team in Europe has begun. I’m not suggesting that our best players will leave or that we will be unable to find good talent in the transfer market. What I am identifying is that results matter. If we can win the FA Cup, or if we can make it deeper in the Champions League, it enhances the image of Arsenal Football Club. It makes players happier to stay and other players more interesting in joining. Just look at Liverpool. They have been useless domestically for years, but they remain a top club internationally because of their success in Europe. On the other hand, look at Manchester City. Their failure to achieve anything of note on the pitch has made it more difficult to attract players despite their limitless wealth. (I realize it’s only been a short time since they’ve had that wealth. We can expect the most mercenary players to arrive there soon enough.) So it seems clear to me that if we can achieve something special in Europe this season, Arsene and the rest of Arsenal management can expect a much more peaceful summer. No pressure lads.
We also have to be realistic about the enormous challenge facing the club. Even our first choice defenders have lacked consistency this season. The goal we conceded in Rome was a typical example of our problems at the back. It showed a lack of leadership, communication and decisiveness. Now we must rely on a patchwork back four. Gibbs is young, Silvestre is old and our ‘keeper likes to take long walks around his penalty area. Worst of all, there’s no one behind them. All the pressure and responsibility falls on their shoulders.
If you look at Manchester United, you can see how difficult it can be to win when you’re missing key defenders. Jonny Evans has looked ill-prepared in the past few weeks as United’s defense has been exploited by Liverpool, Aston Villa and Porto. Bayern Munich also paid the price for starting a weakened defense. Their injury hit back four conceeded five goals to Wolfsburg and four more to Barcelona in a four day period. Basically, playing with back-up defenders in key games is rarely a recipe for success.
For that reason, and because of our particular personnel, Arsene Wenger must be aggressive this week. Walcott, Nasri, Cesc, Adebayor and Van Persie all must start on Wednesday. Add Arshavin to that mix for the FA Cup game against Chelsea. Any suggestion of a conservative lineup is inviting trouble. I will go so far as to say this: if Wenger starts Song and Denilson together in midfield on Wednesday, then we will not be playing in the semi-final. Even without Senna and Cazoral, Villareal will be playing to score the away goal and it’s not hard to see them getting one. The last thing we want to see is the final few minutes of the match ticking away with a nil-nil scoreline while we all bite our nails and remember Alex’s header for PSV. (Well, the last thing we want to see is Villareal scoring, but you get my point.) If Wenger thinks we can play a conservative lineup, then he’s playing to our weaknesses. Fortunately he doesn’t sound like he’s prepared to be conservative. Regarding Wednesday’s match he said,
“We know we are in a situation where we don’t want to be tentative at all. We want to be decisive but you can only do that if you decide to play in a very positive way. We have scored that away goal so it could have an importance at the end of the day. I don’t believe that we are a team who can play for 0-0, that’s not our natural way. If there are five minutes to go and it’s 0-0 even goal kicks make you nervous.”
Wenger hit the nail on the head. None of us need the kind of anxiety that would come from a late nil-nil scoreline. If you believe that Villareal will score, then we must score at least one goal to live on and two goals to advance. It makes you realize that our 1-1 in Spain has given us only a very slight advantage. Here’s the good news: except for their win in Greece last round, Villareal have been poor on their travels. We can only hope that they continue their domestic away form. I find it funny that the media are playing up Villareal’s injury crisis while ignoring ours. If I were a Villareal supporter, knowing that my team needed to score to survive, I’d feel very fortunate to be facing Arsenal with a third-choice center-half and second-choice left-back.
More about the Villareal match tomorrow. Until then, I assume most of us will be rooting for Porto, although I think that they would prove a very tough test in the semi-finals. They have never been beaten at home by English opposition and United’s form is not great at the moment. Having said that, it would come as no surprise to see United pull of the victory. Since the Barcelona tie is all but over, it’s the match we’ll all be watching.
Enjoy the games tomorrow in a relaxed and comfortable environment. Wednesday’s match could prove to be an anxiety-filled 90 minutes…or more.