Arsenal's FA Cup run and potential record can't hide title disappointment
A victory on Sunday would see Arsene Wenger establish a post-war record. Again. Win against Watford and Arsenal will have conquered 16 consecutive rounds in the FA Cup, equalling the regency period of 2002-04 when they won two successive FA Cups and then fell in the semifinals during their Invincible season.
Not that you would have known it at the end of their 4-0 win over Hull City on Tuesday night, a victory that ensured that Arsenal would be continuing their FA Cup love affair this weekend instead of re-engaging with the more tempestuous task of trying to reinvigorate their title challenge against West Brom on Saturday, a game that has since been postponed.
It was a rather incongruous sight at the end of an emphatic victory, but unfurled in the away stands was a banner which read: "Arsene, thanks for the memories, but it's time to say goodbye." You could hardly have wished for a politer form of insurrection. Although Ian Wright had another description for it, "muggy" was the word used by the former striker in a Twitter row with the fan responsible.
It is a banner that has appeared now and again from within the disaffected enclaves of the stands. If nothing else, it ably demonstrates that for some supporters at least, mere progression in the FA Cup -- and the continuation of what on Sunday could become the joint best FA Cup run of the modern era -- isn't enough to disguise the fact that Arsenal's season is rocking. The admittedly impressive win at Hull came after five winless games that left Arsenal all but out of the Champions League and eight points off the title pace with nine games remaining.
When that 16-round streak ended in 2004, Arsenal went on to win the Premier League in that undefeated season. They haven't won it since and a repeat this season seems remote, if not impossible, despite the most open campaign in living memory. Even if a faltering Tottenham (currently three points ahead) can be overtaken and St Totteringham's Day protected, the likelihood of catching Leicester is receding by the week. No team has ever won the league from third place at this stage of the season. If Leicester win on Monday night against Newcastle, Arsenal will have 11 points to make up.
This makes Arsenal's FA Cup exploits all the more essential, something Wenger recognised in his pre-match press conference. With trips to Barcelona and Merseyside to come in the next week and a bit, all focus is instead trained on a match against the next-door neighbours: Watford, whose training ground backs onto Arsenal's. "I'm not considering the Barcelona game, I am only focused on the Watford game," said Wenger on Friday. "Nobody is thinking about the Barcelona and Everton games. Everyone is focused on Watford."
Focusing on the competition with the greatest chance of success seems a logical development -- not that Wenger is necessarily seeing it that way, refusing as he is to give up on success in the Premier League or turning round a 2-0 first-leg deficit to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League.
"Is it the best chance to win a trophy this season? It is too early to say," he added. "I think in my job you give the best in every single game. We have opportunity on Sunday to win. Our record shows we try to do well. Everyone tries to do well in the FA Cup."
Not everyone tries as hard as Wenger, though. No one has won more than his six FA Cups and this season, he's aiming to become the first manager to win three FA Cups in a row since the 1880s. As one newspaper pointed out this week, Lionel Messi has scored 146 goals for Barcelona and Manchester United have had four managers since Arsenal last lost an FA Cup match. It is a story of remarkable consistency and longevity that's entirely out of keeping with their annual collapses in the title race.
If it ends on Sunday, the recriminations will be deeper and more painful than they were in 2004 because barring an unlikely recovery, there will be no league title to fall back on. Increasingly it looks like it's the FA Cup or nothing this season. Luckily for Arsenal, and even those fans who want him out, no one has ever been better at winning it than Arsene Wenger.