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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Arsenal must put aside the memory of the 2011 Carling Cup final

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It's around this time in the season when Arsenal's campaign starts to unravel. Yet another exit from the Champions League knockout stages following a few weeks where the Gunners have been caught in the race for the title - familiar territory.

They could still win the title but not many would put money on it. But at least this year they haven't exited the FA Cup and the quarter-final weekend results really opened the path to that prize.

Arsenal are now the highest ranked side left and one of just two Premier League sides in the semis. They have a last four encounter against a Championship side after enjoying four home ties in the previous rounds. Yes, they have played tough opposition, but the Gunners haven't had to leave the Emirates to get to the last four.

No more excuses. Arsene Wenger's squad will never have a better chance of ending the nine-year trophy drought. This is not Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea or Manchester City barring the way.

If Arsene Wenger can't deliver from a group containing Wigan, Hull City and Sheffield United, then will he ever? The results of the weekend delivered a golden opportunity but simultaneously ramped up the pressure on the club.

Birm v afcBecause Arsenal have been here before. Their Carling Cup campaign in 2010/11 has a lot in common with this year's FA Cup run. In 2011 the Gunners reached the Carling Cup Final and like this year's FA Cup, they were the favoured team in the last four. The other teams were Ipswich Town, Birmingham City and West Ham United.

As this year, Arsenal drew a Championship side for their semi and after a struggle over two legs they eliminated the Tractor Boys. At Wembley they faced a Premier League side lurking in the lower half of the table. Birmingham City in 2011 were in a similar position to Hull City now.

And like Hull, the Brummies had never enjoyed much fortune in cup competition. They did win the League Cup in its early days, when few top clubs took it seriously, but mostly the Blues record was mediocre.

In that 2011 final, Arsenal went in massive favourites and when they levelled after Birmingham bagged the opening goal, most pundits expected the London side to roll on to victory. Except the Second City club refused to play ball and they hung on until a horrendous defensive error gifted Obafemi Martins a late winner leaving no time for a recovery.

From the squad that went down to the Blues, Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna Thomas Rosicky, Laurent Koscielny (who gifted the winner), Niklas Bendtner, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs are still at the Emirates.

There has been a considerable injection of talent in three years from Ozul, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud et al, but the losing Arsenal side in 2011 had the names Van Persie, Nasri, Arshavin and Clichy. The Gunners should have put Birmingham away.

The failure to win in 2011 was the day that pundits and fans really began to question whether Arsenal under Wenger had what it takes to compete with the elite. Great teams find ways to win key matches whereas Arsenal, then and since, seem to find excruciating ways to lose key games.

The last three years have seen change at Arsenal. There has been a subtle alteration in style allowing for more directness in the play but most of all an acceptance that to win trophies the club had to make marquee signings - not just rely on developing talent.

Along the way it has been painful at times (eight goals shipped at Old Trafford, seeing Van Persie depart to the same club etc) but in 2013/14 Arsenal have been up with the pace. They could have had a kinder draw in the Champions League but their re-entry to that competition looks secure after seasons of looking over their collective shoulders.

If they fall short of the title, they will be able to look back on progress. But that will count for little if they don't go on to lift the cup now. Being knocked out of Europe by the best teams around they can live with - but not closing this deal would inflict more horrendous toll on the club psyche.

Drawing Wigan instead of Man City left the squad with nothing to gain and everything to lose. This year the team now have effectively two Cup finals at Wembley that they must win. As a club, Arsenal cannot afford a repeat of 2011. The opportunity is there - it simply has to be taken.

Calling all Gooners: Do you agree? Is this Wenger's biggest test in his recent managerial career? Could this be the springboard for greater honours in the years to come? How damaging would it be if they failed to win this trophy? Whatever your views, we'd love to hear from you.

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Hugh Larkin



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