Wenger's League Cup drought could end but can Arsenal beat Man City?
LONDON -- It is the nature of Arsene Wenger's recent years at Arsenal that next month's Carabao Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley will be billed by some as being either Pep Guardiola's first trophy in England or Wenger's last.
Even if Wenger remains at the helm to see out the final year of his contract next season, few would expect him to build a team capable of winning the Premier League or enjoying success in Europe between now and May 2019. Therefore it might well be the long-standing Arsenal manager's final realistic opportunity to bask in the glow of silverware on Feb. 25.
If that proves to be the case, few would begrudge the 68-year-old the joy of lifting the only domestic trophy to elude him during his 22-year reign as Arsenal boss. There have been three Premier League titles and record seven FA Cups since he joined, but the League Cup -- currently the Carabao Cup -- has not been won by Arsenal since the days of George Graham back in 1993.
Wenger's big problem, though, is that his Arsenal team must overcome Guardiola's fearsome Man City side if they are to end the club's 25-year wait for glory in that competition.
Overcoming Chelsea 2-1 on aggregate in the semifinal was no mean feat by Arsenal, but City are a different matter entirely, and Wenger must find a way, during the next five weeks, to turn his team into winners against Guardiola's men.
"When you are in the final, you want to win it," Wenger said. "City are dominating the Premier League at the moment, but we will see in the final.
"At the moment, they look unstoppable, and we will have to be at our best to beat them.
"It's difficult win trophies in England, which is why big teams try to win them when they have a chance. Having lost [to Birmingham City] in 2011, it's unfinished business because we didn't win. But now we are in it, we want to win it. We play against a very strong side, so it's a very interesting game."
There are some good omens in Arsenal's favour, namely last season's FA Cup semifinal victory over Guardiola's City. Arsenal have also won on each of their past nine visits to Wembley, though they visit the stadium to face Tottenham in the North London derby on Feb. 10, so their impressive record might be out of the window by the time they go head-to-head with City.
But it will require more than history and statistics for Arsenal to knock City off their stride as they go in pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple this season. The loss of Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United has not prevented Arsenal from reaching a fourth domestic cup final in five seasons, but Wenger will need to sharpen his team's cutting edge if they are to threaten City at Wembley.
Capturing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund this month would help immeasurably and also alleviate the goal-scoring burden currently weighing down Alexandre Lacazette. But the loss of Sanchez has taken the element of unpredictability out of Wenger's team, and they are slower and less explosive without the Chile international.
Wenger's best teams were all able to hit opponents quickly and destructively with blistering pace on the counterattack, but with Sanchez and Theo Walcott both sold this month, Arsenal are lacking players who boast the ability to hurt rivals with their speed.
That is not an easy problem to rectify, but even if Wenger is able to do that, can Arsenal halt the attacking talents that City possess at the other end? Guardiola might have been unable to tempt Sanchez to City, but he still has Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn to.
City's strike power and midfield options could see them overrun Arsenal at Wembley, especially if Wenger is forced to deploy Mohamed Elneny as a makeshift defender, something he did against Chelsea at the Emirates. But while City will go into the final as overwhelming favourites, Wenger and Arsenal have found the knack of upsetting the odds on the big occasion in recent years.
Arsenal were underdogs in last season's FA Cup semifinal and final but won both games, against City and Chelsea. There can be no denying that in Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal do possess players who can look City's best in the eye if they are at their best.
But this is not one of Wenger's best teams, and he will head into the final hoping for City to have an off-day. Having seen the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Denis Bergkamp (and Sanchez) inspire previous teams to glory, Wenger will be hoping for a new hero to emerge in the club's latest Wembley final.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_