This week was billed by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as a week in which his team could come of age; a season-defining seven days, which could be the difference between success and failure. With one third of it gone, the Frenchman finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun once again.
Blackburn Rovers arrived at the Emirates Stadium in hope rather than expectation. Michael Appleton’s side are in good form but would surely be no match for a Gunners team pushing for Champions League qualification.
Alas, it was a performance typical of the modern Arsenal team. Wenger chose to rest players ahead of the visit of Bayern Munich in midweek, keeping Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere on the bench. Rovers sat in two banks of four for 90 minutes, frustrating the home side before scoring on the break through former Sheffield United winger Colin Kazim-Richards. Blackburn were through to the next round of the FA Cup and Arsenal were out.
You could not make it up. And yet you absolutely could. The fragility and brittleness of this Gunners squad is palpable and has cost the club time and again – most notably in the Carling Cup exit to Bradford City earlier in the season, where Wenger even selected his full-strength team.
This time, the fringe players got their chance. Rather than stake their claim for a promotion into Wenger’s starting XI however, they cemented their position on the outskirts of an underachieving unit.
Gervinho, back from the African Cup of Nations, was dreadful. Abou Diaby, normally so energetic and powerful, was cumbersome and lumbering. The only man to really impress was Tomas Rosicky, and he was hauled off with 20 minutes still to play in north London.
The defeat raises an important question about Wenger and Arsenal’s priorities. The resting of players for an FA Cup match obviously means that the Champions League meeting with Bayern Munich is seen as more of a priority for the Gunners.
But should that be so? We constantly hear about the lack of silverware at the Emirates Stadium since 2005 but this year’s FA Cup was surely a fantastic opportunity to throw that monkey off the club’s shoulder. Though success in Europe would admittedly be more reputable, it is unlikely at best against a Bayern side who are 15 points clear of their nearest rivals in the Bundesliga.
Having said that, the team which Wenger sent out for the FA Cup fifth round match on Saturday was good enough, on paper, to win the game. All but one of those who played some part in the game for Arsenal were international footballers, compared to Blackburn’s side which, comparatively, was made up of has-beens and never-will-bes.
With the anger of Gunners fans once again growing, Arsene Wenger desperately needs a positive result against Bayern on Tuesday. In this instance, that would be anything other than a defeat in the first leg.
The form book does not make good reading unfortunately. Jupp Heynckes has guided the Bundesliga’s runaway leader to 11 straight victories in all competitions, conceding in just one of those matches. They are unbeaten in 23 matches.
Any Arsenal team selection – first team or reserves, fragile or firm – will struggle to deal with that German juggernaut.
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