Arsenal has been here before — and not simply because a season that promised to be different has turned out exactly the same as so many others, with a genuine title challenge transformed into a desperate battle to maintain a place at Europe's top table within the space of two torrid spring months.
In November 2010, the Gunners booked their place in the semifinals of the League Cup. Their three remaining possible opponents were Ipswich Town, West Ham and Birmingham City. Boasting the talents of Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Arsene Wenger's men were clear favorites to claim a first trophy since moving into the Emirates Stadium.
What ensued instead was a shock Wembley defeat and a humiliation so great that key players and supporters felt compelled to re-evaluate the entire direction of the Wenger project.
This season's FA Cup run feels as though it has arrived at a similar juncture. After an improved season, Arsenal is stuttering at precisely the wrong time, having won just three of its last 10 games in all competitions. Wenger is out of contract in the summer and is seemingly assessing the lay of the land before making a decision on his future.
|WINTERBURN ON WINNING
|"If you want to breed a winning mentality, it goes hand in hand – you can't switch on for one and forsake another. I can't accept winning the cup and finishing fifth. You finish fourth and you win the cup. That's what Arsenal are looking to do and that will make it a decent season, although I still think Arsene Wenger would say it's been frustrating."|
There remains a sole beacon of light on the increasingly gloomy horizon. The Gunners need only overcome Wigan and either Hull City or Sheffield United to win a competition of genuine prestige, quiet fan unrest and remove a sizeable monkey from their backs.
But past failures are not easily forgotten and former Arsenal star Nigel Winterburn believes that Wenger's players will be feeling dread as well as excitement ahead of Saturday's clash.
"I think it will be both," he told Goal. "They know it's been a while since the club has won anything but they should be excited about the opportunity to play the semifinal against a team from a lower league.
"You have to say that, all things being equal, with both teams playing at their best, Arsenal should win it but I've played in games like this where things can be tense and quite tight so we'll have to see. In those games you just have to make sure you're the winner."
Recent evidence suggests that Arsenal should relish its favorite tag. Despite absorbing several brutal beatings at the hands of its main domestic rivals this season, Wenger's men have been very good at defeating everyone else. But superiority at this stage of a cup competition brings its own unique pressure.
"The other big teams are out and that's why Arsenal are big favorites and have a lot of pressure on them," Winterburn adds, "but, if you want to play for a big team, you have to deal with pressure and deliver when the opportunities come your way and that's been a criticism of Arsenal over the past few seasons.
"They've had the odd opportunity and they haven't delivered. They've played well for parts of a season but they haven't been able to get to the finish line and, in cup competitions, they've come up short when it's really mattered. Those are the questions being asked and Arsene Wenger and his team are going to have to answer them — and it will only multiply from here."
Some have suggested that answering those questions is an even more pressing concern than maintaining Arsenal's enduring presence in the Champions League. Wenger, a manager who keeps one eye firmly fixed on the balance sheet, would doubtlessly disagree. In any case, Winterburn believes that it would be counterproductive for the club to compromise on any of its objectives.
"If you want to breed a winning mentality, it goes hand in hand — you can't switch on for one and forsake another," he said. "I can't accept winning the cup and finishing fifth. You finish fourth and you win the cup. That's what Arsenal are looking to do and that will make it a decent season, although I still think Arsene Wenger would say it's been frustrating."
Wenger's future remains a live subject, with conflicting theories circulating as to whether the Frenchman would view FA Cup success as an appropriate time to bow out of the club or as a fresh mandate to continue his 18-year reign. Winterburn hopes that it proves the latter.
"I'd love to see Arsene Wenger stay and be given more money to strengthen the team," he insists. "I don't think they're that far away from being a really strong team.
"If he stays, he's going to have to go into the market and bring a couple of really strong players in to help, particularly in the big games where they've really struggled. If he does that then we'll see whether Arsene Wenger's methods can work again.
"If they brought in another couple of big names alongside [Mesut] Ozil it would make a difference. Even with those players you still have to earn the right to win something but it would be a real statement of intent to the fans that the club is trying to move forward again."
But first Arsenal must overcome Wigan and its Wembley final opponent — and itself.
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