For the second season running in the Champions League, heroic failure for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, who just failed to turn Mission Impossible into Mission Improbable in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night.
Trailing Bayern Munich 3-1 from the first leg in North London three weeks ago, the Gunners very nearly pulled off one of the greatest comebacks the competition has ever seen, but in the end just ran out of time, their 2-0 second-leg victory in Munich seeing them exit the European Cup last 16 3-3 on away goals.
In truth, no one had given Arsenal even a prayer of being the only English side to make it through to Friday’s quarterfinal draw in Switzerland, and for good reason too. The visitors were on a poor run of recent form, having lost three of their previous four matches and five of their last 12, while facing them in Munich were perhaps Europe’s most in-form team, unbeaten in 24 games and with just two losses to their name all season.
And that is before one even mentions the fact that Arsenal needed to overturn a 3-1 deficit, and three away goals, on the night. The 3-0 victory the Gunners came so close to achieving is a scoreline that the Bavarians had only been on the end of once before at the Allianz.
However, as the Arsenal players flew back to London on Wednesday night, they could have been forgiven for thinking what might have been had they not collapsed so feebly at the Emirates last month.
But that would be a huge mistake and only serve to cloud the bigger picture of what now confronts Wenger and his men in the final critical two-and-a-half months of the campaign.
Yes on another night Arsenal may very well have pulled off the Great Escape against Bayern. In fact, a better, more savvy and technically adroit European operator, say a Manchester United, would have immediately sensed that their hosts were not up for a real battle on Wednesday night, simply wanting an easy ride through to the draw on Friday, and made Munich pay the full price for their obvious lethargy.
But the North Londoners just did not quite have the class and skill to do so, and that is what Wenger, in conjunction with chief executive Ivan Gazidis, should be focussing most on, rather than the team’s glorious failure in what at the end of the day was ultimately a defeat and the end of yet another chance to bring silverware back to the club.
Lest anyone need reminding, and most certainly no one at the Emirates does, this season will be Wenger’s eighth without a trophy and anyone who can do simple math will be able to work out that should the Frenchman endure two more barren years in the capital, that will make it a whole decade without any honours for the club.
Now, that would not just be a dry spell, but it would surely represent the end of an era.
So Wenger and his closest cohorts have a lot of thinking to do with regard to next season, although of more immediate concern is how they are going to get the club back into Europe’s premier club competition for a 16th year in a row.
With 10 games remaining of the campaign, fifth-in-the-table Arsenal trail Tottenham Hotspur in third by seven points, albeit having played a game less than their city rivals, and fourth-placed Chelsea by five points, and so have much work to do to rein in either of their London rivals between now and May.
However, even if the Gunners do somehow manage on this occasion to pull off Mission Impossible, and right now that is a very big "if," then as with Wednesday night’s win in Munich, it should not be used to paper over the obvious cracks in the team that are there for all to see.
Wenger has money in the bank to rectify these issues, although just how large that transfer war chest is remains open to much debate, while failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League will also naturally have serious ramifications on how much cash the Frenchman will have to splash come the summer.
Either way the first-team squad needs surgery, not drastic surgery, but the addition of some key individuals to strengthen certain areas of the side.
To start with, an experienced goalkeeper to replace Wojciech Szczesny, who was left out against Bayern because Wenger claimed the Pole was mentally exhausted (via the Independent) and a replacement right back for Bacary Sagna, who is set to leave the club for Inter Milan at the end of the season (via the Daily Mirror).
Should Wenger still be Arsenal manager next season?
Wenger is also known to be on the lookout for a new centre-back, with doubts continuing to linger about both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny’s abilities to cut it at the very highest level, while it is understood that the Frenchman is keen to sign a holding midfield player with better fitness levels than Abou Diaby and more mobility than Mikel Arteta.
However, perhaps of greatest concern to the Arsenal manager at present is the fitness of England international Jack Wilshere, currently the club’s most important and only true world-class operator, and the worrying collapse in form of captain Thomas Vermaelen, another player who also did not even make the starting XI in Munich.
Address those glaring team issues with a sensible player-recruitment strategy this summer, then Arsenal can have plenty with which to look forward to next season. However, and this ultimately is the crux of the whole issue, can Wenger see those warning signs and, more importantly does he really have the inclination to want to rectify them by opening his cheque book and spending big?