There is a sense of déjà vu around the Emirates as Arsenal once again enter the late season without being a major force in the Premier League and Champions League and there being serious questions about whether Arsène Wenger is still the man to take the club forward.
Like last season, there is one trophy still to play for. The Gunners produced a rare quality display in a big game to beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the FA Cup 12 months ago, and Wenger will now be eager to end an underwhelming campaign by lifting the Europa League trophy in France in mid-May. That will not be an easy task with the likes of Atlético Madrid still in the draw, and would it be enough to keep Wenger in his job?
The Europa League is important for several reasons. It will show that Wenger is still capable of rallying his troops to secure glory on the continent, but perhaps more importantly, it will ensure that Arsenal advance to the group stages of the Champions League for the 2018/19 season. The Gunners are languishing in sixth place in the Premier League, 13 points adrift of local rivals Spurs, so hopes of qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition automatically are all but over.
For a club of Arsenal’s stature, Champions League football is crucial, and the Europa League is now their only way into the tournament. Wenger can take solace from the success of Manchester United and José Mourinho last term, who defeated Ajax 2-0 in the final to qualify for the Champions League. The Red Devils also finished sixth in the Premier League. There are parallels, and Arsenal are strong favourites to defeat Russian side CSKA Moscow to advance to the last four and will offer great value for punters who bet on matches with Stakers.com.
Winning the Europa League will also boost Wenger’s plans to target top talent in the summer, as long as the club stumps up the funds to secure the players that are so desperately needed to overhaul the squad. The recent additions of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan suggest that Arsenal remains an appealing destination for quality players, as does Mesut Özil’s decision to renew his contract, though the German’s performances have again been hit and miss.
Whether the Europa League will be redemption for Wenger will also depend on whether his job is in any danger in the first place. Reports indicate that chief executive Ivan Gazidis and higher-ups will review the Frenchman’s position at the end of the season, and there is a “feeling”, according to the media, that this will be his last campaign. Fans have heard this all before though, so it is not clear exactly what will happen in the coming months, even if Europa League success cannot be attained.
Arsenal have shown signs of recovery in recent weeks. The two-legged 5-1 aggregate victory over AC Milan was impressive, as was the 3-0 win against Watford in the Premier League. Hopefully, the club’s slump in form is now over and everyone can pull together to build a solid platform for the 2018/19 season. Wenger is not on his last legs just yet, but another cup win would be a timely reminder that he can still mix it with the big boys and come out on top.