The Return of the King: Arsenal Have the Double in Their Sights
March 14 1998.
Manchester United sit 12 points clear atop the Premiership as they chase a hat-trick of titles. Flawless all season, the Red Devils went on to succumb to one of the greatest fight-backs in Premier League history and Arsenal claimed a Premiership/FA Cup double.
March 14 2009.
Manchester United sit four points clear atop the Premiership with game in hand. Ferguson's red machine has steamrolled ahead all season, driving unstoppably towards a hat-trick of titles. Sound familiar?
The difference this time is that Arsenal ARE out of the title race, with Liverpool the most likely to challenge United on that front. Yet Wenger's men can still exploit United's recent stumble in the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup.
The Gunners are on track to face United in the semifinals of the Champions League (provided they win a tricky quarterfinal tie against Villarreal) and the final of the FA Cup.
By the time Arsenal resumes competitive football (with a Premier League clash with Manchester City on April 4) Wenger will be able to call on a practically full squad.
Since the beginning of March Arsenal will have welcomed back Eduardo (three times), Walcott (twice), Adebayor, Silvestre, and of course the King, inspirational captain Cesc Fabregas.
Cesc’s importance to Arsenal cannot be overstated. The diminutive Spaniard is the heartbeat of the team—central to every attack and ever-present in defence.
In-form striker Robin van Persie recently summed up the captain’s importance saying “Cesc is coming back and he is our heartbeat. He is really important for us—because he controls the game, slowing it down and speeding it up.”
Wenger echoed this sentiment in an interview with Arsenal TV Online noting that “When he’s there, everything goes through him but when he’s not it can take a while to adapt”.
It is no coincidence that Arsenal’s most barren run of games in the Wenger era coincided with the first long-term absence to injury of their talismanic captain, Fabregas.
However, when matches resume after the international break and with only the perennially-sidelined Tomas Rosicky unavailable, Wenger will have at his disposal a wealth of attacking talent for the Premiership run-in and the final push in the two remaining cup competitions.
Add to this the ongoing adaptation of winter signing Andrey Arshavin (who already looks worth every penny of the £15 million spent on bringing him to the club from Zenit St Petersburg) and Arsenal all of a sudden look capable matching it with the best in Europe.
The Champions League
Arsenal's bid to win a maiden Champions League crown looks to hinge on a possible semifinal meeting with Manchester United. The two teams have never faced each other in this competition and as such an outcome is hard to predict.
However, under Ferguson, United have never been entirely convincing in Europe. Their two triumphs came in the treble-winning season of 1999 and in the final in Moscow last year.
Yet even in these seasons the Red Devils were nowhere near the force in Europe that they were (and are) domestically. They typically struggle away from home, with Ferguson adopting an unusually negative style of play to which his players are unsuited.
One only need remember United's woeful attempt to shut up shop against Porto in 2003 which ended with the Portuguese side snatching a deserved 2-1 win and Roy Keane being suspended for the return leg at Old Trafford (which United were unable to win and culminated in their exit from the competition).
Even the last-gasp victory over Bayern Munich in 1999 masked a generally unconvincing campaign away from home in Europe and last year's showpiece against Chelsea was as underwhelming as the 0-0 scoreline suggests, with United only in the lottery that is a penalty shoot-out.
The point is this: in all likelihood, Arsenal and Manchester United will meet in this year's Champions League semifinals.
With the Red Devils' continuing form slump, Ferguson's inconsistency in masterminding away European victories, and Arsenal's returning players and recent good form, the Gunners have a great chance to knock out the holders for the second year running.
That sets up a mouth-watering final with, in my opinion, Barcelona (as the Catalan club will surely be too strong for either Chelsea or Liverpool in the other semifinal). Barcelona's open, attacking tactics will suit Arsenal's style well and the Gunners will claim their first ever European crown.
The FA Cup
The real obstacle for Arsenal here appears to be the semifinal clash with Chelsea on April 18. However, having already beaten both Chelsea and United this season, and on the back of a 16+ game unbeaten run domestically, Arsenal will be full of confidence facing the Blues at Wembley.
Obviously, it is not going to be easy for Wenger's men; Manchester United and Chelsea (not to mention Barcelona) are exceptional sides. However, under Cesc's leadership, the Double is well within reach.
As for United, Ferguson would do well to focus on holding off a resurgent Liverpool in the Premiership, rather than stretching his already tiring squad too thinly in the quest for an impossible quintuple.
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