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May 16, 2014

FA Cup win can end decade of hurt for Wenger's Arsenal

Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny conspired to ruin Arsenal's last Wembley final, in the League Cup vs. Birmingham in 2011.
Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny conspired to ruin Arsenal's last Wembley final, in the League Cup vs. Birmingham in 2011.
"They are destroyed," said Arsene Wenger in March 2011, his face pained. He was describing the mood of the Arsenal dressing room after the disaster of last-minute League Cup final defeat to Birmingham City. Three years and three months on, he finally has a chance to bury such a ghost. Failure on Saturday however would lengthen his trophy drought to beyond a decade; a statistic to damn Wenger's tenure forever.

The FA Cup final, and Hull City, provide a golden redemptive opportunity. Were Wenger's team to fail once again, then rumours of his possible departure will snowball. Should the rather too thinkable occur, then the Frenchman's post-match duties will involve fending over heavy interrogation on his immediate future.

Following the domestic season's conclusion, Wenger is expected to take his annual holiday to Italy's Dolomites, before heading out to Brazil for punditry work. A new contract is unsigned, though most suggestions are he will put pen to paper and the announcement will take place while the club is on summer hiatus. Without answering queries fully, he has hinted at staying. "I am from a period where you didn't need a pen to commit," he said after Champions League qualification was secured on May 5.

"Don't be too impatient, my last time will come," Wenger continued with a smile. "You'll get rid of me one day. It's not linked with my commitment; it's linked with the fact that I feel I am useful."

Finishing fourth and winning the FA Cup would seem decent indicators of continuing usefulness, even if the former is a minimum requirement delivered after Arsenal's first half of the season had promised so much more.

In this week's preview news conferences, he has reiterated that the Wembley showpiece's influence on his future will be "none", and there has been "no change" to his contract situation. Such is Wenger's power at Arsenal, the decision lies with him alone. At 64, the day draws almost certainly near, and like his great rival and contemporary Sir Alex Ferguson, the news will come when it comes, rather than be preluded by a set departure date.

On Saturday, Wembley, a stadium of pain for Wenger's Arsenal since it was reopened in 2007. They have not won a match in normal time there; winning this season's semifinal shootout against Wigan after a drab performance was their best result yet. The previous Empire Stadium was a far happier hunting ground; Wenger's Arsenal never lost there, winning the 1998 FA Cup to secure a Double and subsequently claiming a Charity Shield, which they repeated the following year.

{C}Cardiff's Millennium Stadium was almost as hospitable. The 2001 FA Cup final was lost, but Arsenal won FA Cups in 2002, 2003 and 2005, as well as winning the rebranded Community Shield in 2002, 2003 and 2004. However, the FA Cup finals of 2003 and 2005 both betrayed the type of stagefright that would later prove so costly. The memory of 2003's final is burnished with Arsenal players holding the ball in the corners to secure a narrow victory over Southampton, while 2005 was a fortuitous penalty shootout defeat of Manchester United, after being thoroughly outplayed.

Since then, the catastrophe of having the 2006 Champions League final snatched from their grasp by Barcelona after having Jens Lehmann dismissed, being punished by a Didier Drogba double after a brawl-scarred 2007 League Cup final with Chelsea and then the Birmingham debacle of 2011. A rain-sodden afternoon saw Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny commit the calamity on which Obafemi Martins seized. Over a disappointing near-decade, it still goes down as the most catastrophic moment of all.

It may be of concern that Hull have a similar profile to Birmingham in 2011. Like Alex McLeish, Steve Bruce is a manager who learned at the feet of Ferguson. Just like McLeish's team, Hull's best chance of winning at Wembley lies in keeping the score low, holding steady against Arsenal's dominance of possession, before striking on the break.

As Blues lifted the trophy that afternoon, Jack Wilshere, having played outstandingly in his first major final, sobbed his teenage heart out. Injuries have cost him much of the time since, and Saturday will be only his second final, itself evidence of his club's fortunes. Last week, he played for the first time since March when making a comeback at Norwich, and admits to seeking advice from arch-critic Paul Scholes on how to improve his game. "There comes a time when you stop being a kid," Wilshere admitted this week. As with his manager, there is a sense of lost time needing to be made up for.

"No matter what the result will be, this club -- and this is always most important -- can deal with the consequences of any game," Wenger said this week. It was a comment that could be translated in two ways: either Arsenal do not fear failure, or they are already prepared for it.

The club's fans must hope for the former and that -- finally -- the Wembley woes and trophy travails are consigned to the past.