Home draw? Check. Lower league opposition? Check. Luck of the draw? Certainly and thank you very much. Burnley are the latest sacrificial lambs in Arsenal’s cup quest; let’s hope they remember the script at the end of the month. It’s not quite a holy grail but may yet turn out to be so if things go wrong in other competitions.
The winning habit in the FA Cup is a good one to have but needs to surface in the ‘premier’ competitions. Roberto Martinez observed that winning the League Cup wouldn’t keep his ‘star’ players happy and nor you suspect, will winning the FA Cup for Arsenal. The hope is that this season is seeing the shift toward challenging for the title and in that sense the cup is a distraction at the moment, albeit a welcome one.
Arsène would see the FA Cup reduced to a midweek competition to preserve the sanctity of the Premier League. His defence of the English game was less urbane than his eulogy for David Bowie. No, not every England defeat is due to fixture congestion but at club level, we can point to cup exits or Premier League defeats down the years when team selection has forced changes with priorities elsewhere.
He stopped short of saying it but removing the League Cup from the equation seems the first option and holding the FA Cup Third Round before Christmas. Certainly without a European place on offer, the League Cup’s future is questionable; it is little more than a twenty-first century Full Members Cup – ask your parents, kids.
Whilst other clubs vying for European places ponder squad rotation with third round replays in mind, Arsène has a clear run. Whether he would have chosen the next three fixtures is debatable. It doesn’t matter how Liverpool are performing, they will raise their game when Arsenal bowl into town whilst the venom directed toward Wenger at the Britannia Stadium makes this the nearest thing that Stoke have to a local derby. Outside of Tottenham, it’s hard to think of any Premier League club which holds the same animosity toward Arsenal.
Some of the spice of the final match – Chelsea’s visit to The Emirates – has been removed with Jose Mourinho’s departure. It was a sad day for us; Hiddink or whoever Abramovich appointed was always going to inspire a revival of sorts, be it temporary or a late surge up the table into the Champions League places.
Not that February sees any improvement in the fixture list. We get some respite with the returns against the south coast teams and the FA Cup before an intense period of games against Barcelona, United, Tottenham and Everton. If the next fortnight will tell us a lot about the squad’s ability to challenge for the title, the eight games which start with home leg of the Champions league are season-defining.
Arsenal are top of the Premier League. Before the season began, the received wisdom and our own hopes coincided: add one or two more signings and this is a squad which can challenge for the title. Well, at the moment, we’re challenging for the title without any new additions. Whether that lasts depends on how deeply the players can dig in.
At the moment, Arsenal have been priced at 21/20 to win the title this year with only City marginally ahead. They have their tricky fixture list in February and March.
It was interesting to see Arsène’s view on the pressures caused by challenging on three trophy fronts. Essentially big clubs get on with it, and to an extent enjoy these times: it means you’re doing something right. They won’t last – let’s be honest, Barcelona are going to beat us over two legs. I don’t think our rope-a-dope tactics will work against them. There’s always hope, of course, and you never give up but without a strong advantage from the first leg, we are always going to be up against it.
But given how badly the Champions League campaign began, it’s nice to be in the position to be wondering how Arsenal can possibly win the two-legged tie against the Catalans. This season, with my low expectations, has been great. As with any other season, it has enlivened, invigorated, angered and frustrated. It’s what football is all about but we are now heading into the return journey.
Top at the start of that is an achievement but not tangible. The only tangible is medals at the end of the season and this week is the beginning of that long journey. The victory over Sunderland was the first step in the defence of the FA Cup; now it’s about taking the Premier League by the scruff of the neck. Starting tomorrow at Anfield.