There is a general acceptance in the football world that the FA Cup isn’t quite what it was when it comes to levels of importance for Premier League clubs. Title glory and the glamour of the Champions League carry the club’ and for some clubs at the lower echelons of the table, survival and the financial stability that brings is everything. So if that means preserving players for important league encounters ahead at the risk of a successful cup run, so be it.
For one man though, this season’s competition could prove to represent something a of a saviour to his club’s season. Arsene Wenger heads to Wembley on Saturday to face Steve Bruce’s Hull City knowing that only a win will suffice if he is to silence some of his growing list of critics.
There is little chance of the Arsenal boss being relieved of his duties at the club and he has maintained that he will sign a new contract in the summer. Should the Frenchman fail to secure the club’s first trophy in nine years though, there will be plenty of Arsenal fans who will feel it might well be time for a change.
Determining whether this season has been a success for the Gunners is a difficult one. It’s easy to forget that not too many pundits and fans an Arsenal title challenge before the season began. In fact many believed that Arsenal would have a fight on their hands just to land a top four place.
The riches of Manchester City and Chelsea have at their disposal means that they are always expected to occupy one of those spots, but the other two positions were very much up for debate. Sir Alex Ferguson had departed Old Trafford but there were still not many who could see last season’s champions Manchester United being too far off the top. North London neighbours Tottenham had lost Gareth Bale but had used the money from the Welshman’s sale to bolster the squad with a £100 million spending spree whilst Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers were a re-emerging force. With Arsenal target Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in their ranks, many felt a first Champions League appearance since 2009 was a realistic target for the Merseyside club.
Meanwhile back at the Emirates, Arsenal hadn’t made any significant new signings by the time the season kicked off and Wenger was the subject of the supporter’s wrath after the opening day home defeat to Aston Villa. Their main complaint was Wenger’s apparent refusal to spend any significant money, and made their opinions perfectly clear to the Frenchman. With Arsenal ticket prices the highest in the country and given the club’s apparent excellent financial state, the fans felt they deserved more squad investment.
Wenger answered their request with the signing of superstar midfielder Mesut Ozil and immediately Arsenal’s season had a new look to it. The arrival of the German seemed to lift everyone a lift and they proceeded to embark on a superb run of form that saw them occupy the top of the table for several months. Aaron Ramsey was in sparkling form and the Gunners were starting to look genuine title contenders. Expectations had now changed.
With the club still riding high at the top of the league in January, many felt the transfer window was right time to add reinforcements and help maintain their excellent form and push on for a first title since 2004. With Ramsey curtailed by injury, much of the goalscoring burden was placed on Olivier Giroud’s shoulders. With Theo Walcott ruled out for the season and only the young unproven Yaya Sanago as back-up to Giroud, signing a striker was seen as a priority in many Arsenal fan’s eyes. Instead though, veteran Swedish midfielder Kim Kallstrom was the only winter arrival.
By mid-March the tremendous early season form had started to slip and heavy defeats to title rivals Liverpool and Chelsea ultimately saw the Gunner’s title bid run out of steam. When it comes to qualifying for the Champions League, Wenger and Arsenal can always be relied on. The North Londoners finished secured a forth place finish and qualified for Europe’s premier competition for the seventeenth year running.
So given fan’s expectations back in August, there is an argument to be made that a Champions League place and an FA Cup win would represent a satisfactory season. However after being top of the league for months and subsequently letting their lead slip, the overall feeling is one of disappointment and what ifs.
This is why the outcome of tomorrow’s Wembley show piece brings added importance for Wenger. A victory and finally the trophy drought is over and everyone at the Emirates will feel a whole lot better about things going into the summer. A defeat however will only strengthen the beliefs of those that feel Wenger’s best days are behind him. Critics of the Arsenal boss feel that despite the phenomenal success of the first eight years of his reign, it is time for the club to make a change and head in a new direction under a new manager.
Against a Hull side without the cup-tied Nikica Jelovic and Shane Long, and with Ramsey back in splendid form after returning from injury, this is a game Arsenal go into as strong favourites. Wigan’s unlikely victory over Manchester City last year however proves that when it comes to cup finals an upset is never too far away – something that Arsenal know only too well after their League Cup final defeat to underdogs Birmingham back in 2011.
The prestige of winning the FA Cup should never never be taken for granted and winning the competition alone should be cause for jubilant celebrations on the streets of North London. For Wenger though, who is looking to add to the four he already has, a cup win would also go some way to convincing the Arsenal faithful that more successful days lie ahead.