Whichever you way you want to look at it, and whatever ‘it’ is, it’s still on. Whether you deem ‘it’ to be second or fifth, we can do it. Now, with City likely to make the top four, seventh in the Premier League will get into the Europa League. Not much of a safety net although it’s hard not to argue that we have a better chance of winning the lesser competition than the Champions League which is beyond our reach.
The recurring theme from both sides of the argument about the manager and the season’s outcome, is that the minimum requirement is a top four finish. The Champions League, a seat at Europe’s top table, is key to the club keeping pace off the pitch, with the elite. It is as well, with the latest bout of negotiations about the competition’s future.
UEFA will fight hard to protect the brand against clubs who want to protect themselves. When the final decisions are made and the quota of clubs who are guaranteed entry is made, Arsenal have to make sure that they are included in that list: it is the only way to protect their brand but if City win the trophy, twenty years of qualification may be a lauded hallmark of consistency but count for nothing.
That step further, the chances we’ve spurned, may yet come back to haunt us. 2003/04 still rankles with me, it was the opportunity, a painfully obvious point when you look at the last four. Arsenal could have won that who knows, may have sealed Henry, Bergkamp or Vieira’s place in any debate of who is the greatest footballer in Europe?
But now the Champions League is entering a phase when football politics are more important than the stars above your club crest, certainly for those who are outside of the top four wealthiest clubs. Now ties with other clubs, cabals and symbiotic relationships and who knows who. Knowing how many strokes of the thumb are necessary and meetings away from the prying eyes that peer through the partially opened doors in the wood-panelled corridors of real power.
We’d better hope that Ivan and co have built up a contacts book. It won’t be as good as the one we used to have but that was from that era, this is now. Ivan’s contributions have scrutinised with Arsène’s popularity waning yet he may prove his worth in this field. Preserving Arsenal’s standing may well improve his power base at a club where money talks.
The direct route to the Champions League is a key plank of that as well. It allows the money-spinning tours to take place, to build the KSE – not just Arsenal – brands. City’s draw last night opens up that possibility once more if West Brom are put to the sword. Like everyone, I’ve never seen so many tickets floating around for a single game. Whether that lasts as the match assumes a greater importance – no matter if its a small incremental increase – with victory once more putting Arsenal charge of next season’s destiny.
It’s always been a source of amusement – gallows humour at times like this – that supporters are criticised for not lifting the players when the mood is dragged down by the performances of those same individuals. Hope springs eternal dimmed before being crushed with a stumble in a defensive dead-end that encapsulates your whole season in ten seconds.
Of course being football, Arsenal will now come out on Thursday and demolish Albion with as scintillating a display of football as has been mustered all season. It’s a perversity of performance that most supporters of any club can relate to: a response too little too late for the season’s main objective. And still we come back for more.
That’s football. Times of joy, happiness, sadness, moaning and groaning, anger, frustration and seething rage. The only thing guaranteed, for me at least, is coming back for more because it has been a journey well worth travelling.