Arsenal FC: 5 Massive Games for Arsene Wenger Between Now and Year-End
It hasn't been easy, being an Arsenal fan this season.
The team have been riding the roller-coaster of failure and success, scaling some dizzying heights and also plummeting to some gut-wrenching lows. The fans have been through the entire range of emotions already, and it would come as no surprise to me if some of them were to put their hands up and say that they've had enough for this season. Yes, even as early as November.
Even before the season started, the club and the fans were hit hard by the twin-departures of key men Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to Manchester City. Then there was the disappointing loss to the New York Red Bulls in the Emirates Cup—the only trophy Arsenal have lifted with some consistency in recent years (there's my daily dose of gallows humor).
This was followed by the apparent inability to sign anyone who wasn't 19 and unknown. Then we faced current Serie A high-fliers Udinese in a tricky Champions League qualifier. And even though we did go through, it was a massive struggle, and was largely made possible due to a spectacular one-handed penalty save in Udine by Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny.
The Premier League season started with a flurry of red cards (three in three games) and defeats (two in three), and as of Oct. 15, the team had amassed a total of seven points in seven league games and found themselves just above the relegation zone in the league table. In the midst of all this, Arsene Wenger went berserk (in a good way) at the fag-end of the transfer window, and signed five new players (including no 19-year-olds) in a highly uncharacteristic three-day splurge.
However, the tide was to turn. Led by their talisman Robin van Persie, Arsenal embarked on their very own October-fest, winning five games on the bounce across three competitions, ending October in seventh place in the Premier League, top of their Champions League Group and in their ninth consecutive League Cup quarter final.
Having resurrected their flailing fortunes, the team must now consolidate. Arsenal are left with a somewhat tricky and highly important set of 12 fixtures in the last two months of this calendar year.
Here's looking at five of the most important games remaining in 2011. And although Arsene Wenger always says it is the most important, no, the next game is not on my list...
5. Borussia Dortmund, Champions League, 23 November, Emirates Stadium
Arsenal currently top their Champions League group by the narrowest of margins, with eight points from four games. Victory against Borussia Dortmund in our fifth league match will take Arsenal to 11 points and through to the knockout stages. And if Marseille fail to defeat Olympiakos on the same day, Arsenal will be confirmed as group winners.
Victory and qualification in first place will give us a chance to rest some players for the arduous 4,000-mile round-trip to Athens to face Olympiakos in the relatively warmer climes of Athens. That fixture comes just three days after one of our longer domestic away trips, to Wigan in the northwest, a game for which we cannot afford to rest any of our best players.
Defeat against Dortmund could be catastrophic. It will, in all likelihood, send Marseille top of the group. It will bring Dortmund right back into the mix. And it will mean that Arsenal must win at Olympiakos to ensure qualification for the lucrative knock-out stages of the Champions League.
And even if we do defeat Olympiakos, we will probably end up in second place in Group F, with teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich lying in wait in the next round. Not a welcome prospect.
Therefore, it is beneficial in all ways for the Gunners to take care of business at home against the German champions and cruise through to the knock-out stages yet again.
4. Manchester City, Carling Cup, 29/30 November, Emirates Stadium
The Carling Cup is the least significant trophy in England. Undisputed fact.
However, for Arsenal, it is again the most important. The Gunners were favorites to land the cup last year, when facing Birmingham in the final at Wembley. However, a last-minute mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Szczesny meant that Arsenal went home empty-handed and broken-hearted, and the six-year wait for a trophy continued.
And although the Carling Cup is indeed relatively unimportant, winning it would lift a monkey off our backs. There would be no more loose talk about Arsenal not having won a trophy since the beginning of time. And though Arsene Wenger has made it a competition for his squad players this season, he must re-prioritize when the visitors from Eastlands come calling.
Which brings us to our opponents. Manchester City are flying high this season. They have depth in quality, and to be perfectly honest, their second 11 will take care of pretty much every other Premier League team. Players like Samir Nasri, James Milner, Adam Johnson, Nigel de Jong, Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta and Edin Dzeko would find their way into almost any other team. But they can and must be beaten. Defeat to City's second string would damage Arsenal's credentials, morale and chances of winning a trophy.
This game presents an excellent opportunity for Arsenal to derail the City juggernaut, and a victory over the moneybags from Manchester (even in the Carling Cup) would give Arsenal nothing short of a massive boost. It would also put us into a two-legged semi-final, where we must fancy ourselves, whoever the opposition.
Bring it on, Roberto...
3. Wigan Athletic, Premier League, 3 December, DW Stadium
Arsenal travel to Wigan Athletic's DW Stadium on the 3rd of December to face a team that might still be propping up the Premier League table as on that date. Then why, you ask, is this game so important?
That's because our last two visits to this northwestern rugby town have yielded a grand total of one measly point, and after the start we've had to this Premier League season, we cannot afford any more generosity. Last season, we led 2-1 against the 10-man Latics, only for Sebastian Squillaci to begin his process of endearment to Gooners by scoring a late own goal.
And the season before was even worse. Leading 2-0 and in complete control with ten minutes to go, we conspired to give away three late goals in a bizarre display of footballing suicide, to hand the game to the opponents and the season to our title rivals.
The team will certainly be carrying some Latic hangover, and it is imperative that we win ahead of two tough Premier League fixtures. First up, a tricky home game against an always strong Everton side and then the big daddy of them all—an away trip to the Etihad Campus.
2. Manchester City, Premier League, 18 December, Etihad Stadium
"Hey big spender, spend a little time with me"...
I don't think Shirley Bassey ever envisaged that these lyrics would be used in a footballing context, but there you go.
Arsenal face Manchester City for the second time in three weeks, this time in an away Premier League fixture. This game will have multiple ramifications for the Premier League race.
First and foremost, if City win, they will further establish themselves as title favorites. If they draw or, better still, lose, a seed of doubt will be sown in everyone's mind. A tighter Premier League race is better for everyone...except City.
If Arsenal can get any kind of a result at Eastlands, it will give the squad a massive lift. There has been, and will continue to be, plenty of talk swirling around Arsenal's comparatively meager resources in the transfer market, and how that makes Arsenal a lesser club. Winning at City will at least partially convince the squad, the fans and the general public that money can't always buy you success.
From Arsenal's perspective, it will be even better because as many as nine former Gunners (players, administrators, etc) are currently on the rolls at Eastlands. I read this somewhere, and I can't give you a complete list, but there's Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Stuart Taylor, Patrick Vieira, David Platt and Brian Kidd. Anyone know the ninth?
But what I'm getting at is that it will be a whole lot of fun if we can gloat in the general direction of some of these individuals (and you know who I'm talking about) as we walk away with all three points.
1. Queens Park Rangers, Premier League, 31 December, Emirates Stadium
Nouveau riche west end boys.
Need I say more?