Make-or-break day for Wenger's Arsenal reign
A glance at the teamsheet for the 2005 FA Cup final is sufficient to appreciate the full, agonising length of Arsenal's wait for silverware.
Of the 16 players Arsene Wenger selected to face Manchester United for that game, his 497th as manager, nine are now retired. The other seven have since departed and been part of 27 different trophy-winning teams for Chelsea, Manchester City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Benfica and Atletico Madrid.
It is why, match after match, year after year, the pressure on Wenger has steadily grown, to the extent that game number 1,004 as Arsenal manager, today's FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic, could amount to a tipping point. Lose and it becomes difficult to envisage him continuing beyond this season.
Win, then complete the job in the final against either Hull City or Sheffield United on May 17, and his 18-year reign as manager could happily extend into a third decade.
That is the knife-edge upon which Wenger surely now walks. A dividing line brought into even sharper focus when Wigan beat Manchester City in the quarter-finals to indirectly open the door to Arsenal.
"We are in a position where it is our responsibility to take this opportunity," said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Arsenal midfielder. Yet with responsibility comes pressure. It is something that Arsenal could not collectively handle in the final of the 2011 League Cup. It is also a situation that Wigan, the holders, will surely try to use to their advantage today.
David Seaman, three times an FA Cup winner under Wenger, believes that it is "the most important game" of the season for Arsenal. "There are more and more people coming up to me saying it is time that he left, but he is a great manager," said Seaman. "The goalposts have changed for Arsenal. I know some fans are going crazy but, if we win the FA Cup and get in the top four that, on paper, looks like a great season."
Unsurprisingly, the glass-half-full mentality was also the mantra this week at Arsenal's training ground. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who trained yesterday but remains a doubt today, acknowledged that the nine-year trophy drought did hang over the club but pointed out that this was a relatively new and young team. The aim, understandably, is to separate this group of players from past disappointments.
"When people say it's been weighing on the club heavily, the players are fully aware of that and we want to make that right but, as a group, we've been gelling together over a fairly short period of time," he said.
"It's been maybe two or three years. For the time we've been together, we've been building ourselves up to a moment like this."
Before they eventually lost patience and left, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie would both often say that Arsenal just needed to get over the first hurdle of winning a trophy together and that further successes would then follow. The same applies to this new team. "It is definitely a springboard and a confidence boost going on to the future," said Oxlade-Chamberlain.
"I believe that with the team that we have here, it will come. Once you get that experience of winning the first one, you automatically build confidence that you can do that again and again and again.
"That is definitely something that will help this team to go on and push forward. But it is just getting to that first one. We don't think we're massive favourites and they're underdogs. It is a lot easier said than done."
The question of priorities today will also fascinate. With Everton now breathing down their necks in the race for a top-four place, the fixture on Tuesday against West Ham United could still influence Wenger's selections.
He has already said that reserve goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski will start today rather than Wojciech Szczesny and there will also be a temptation to rest Olivier Giroud.
Against that, Wenger himself must sense what others around the club most crave. "If I had to pick fourth and no trophy, or fifth and a trophy, I would take the trophy," said Ray Parlour, the former Arsenal midfielder.
"It would give the club a boost. I know the Champions League is important and great for the club financially but you don't want to be a professional footballer to make money for your club. The whole objective is to win."
That is reflected at Arsenal's training ground, where it is photographs of trophy-winning teams that adorn the walls. Similarly, the years that are listed all around the Emirates Stadium end in 2005. There are no mentions of finishing fourth. Wenger denied on Thursday that his future would be decided by whether Arsenal won the FA Cup but, with a new contract unsigned, it is hard to imagine supporters being satisfied with anything less. (©Daily Telegraph, London)
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