FA Cup gives Arsene Wenger platform on which to stay at Arsenal or leave
Arsenal's twin fates this summer at least have one unifying feature: the need for a happy ending to the season. Whether Arsene Wenger ultimately decides to stay or go, Arsenal require some element of redemption to make the situation at all palatable.
If Wenger does depart, it will hardly be fitting for one of the great modern managerial reigns if he leaves via the back door with his life's work in ruins, driven out by supporter insurrection. If he does sign a new contract, Arsenal need a good run of results so that any announcement from the club lands remotely favourably with supporters. This seems a distant prospect at present.
Certainly, the Premier League is unlikely to be capable of delivering the redemptive story the club so desperately needs. With seven points to make up on fourth-place Manchester City, even with a game in hand, Arsenal are well on course for their worst league finish since coming fifth in 1995-96. If Manchester United finish above Arsenal too, it will be their worst effort since 1994-95 when they flirted with relegation, saw George Graham sacked amid scandal, and lost Paul Merson to rehab.
That fateful season was also the last time Tottenham finished above Arsenal in the league table, but Wenger's proud record of always enjoying North London supremacy is on the verge of being relinquished. The gap to Spurs is a cavernous 14 points, with Arsenal possessing one game in hand; it is only a matter of time.
Even the fixtures don't look favourable for Wenger, with tricky home games against Leicester, Manchester United and Everton coupled with away trips to Tottenham, Southampton and Stoke. The only respite comes in the form of a home game against Sunderland in the penultimate game of the season, by which time Arsenal's fate could be sealed in any case. It is hard to see where Arsenal are going to win two or three games on the spin as their prospects of a stirring recovery look quite bleak.
That is what makes this season's FA Cup campaign even more important. If there is a redemptive story to be told, one that is just about substantial enough to help frame a new contract for Wenger or prevent him departing the club in borderline disgrace, then it will likely only come at Wembley.
Arsenal have been in this situation before, even if the circumstances were rather less pronounced. Three years ago, when Wenger signed the contract that's due to expire this summer, Arsenal were under pressure following some poor league performances and, with supporters growing restless, it was only following the 3-2 FA Cup final win over Hull City that Wenger signed the new contract on offer. If the much-discussed trophy drought stretching back to 2005 had not ended, Wenger has freely admitted he may have walked away.
Success or failure in the FA Cup this season isn't expected to have as much of a defining quality on the latest decision over his future, but it will be fundamental to how that decision is received and processed by Arsenal supporters and the wider football community. Beat Manchester City in Sunday's semifinal and then go on to defeat Chelsea or, even more tantalisingly, Tottenham in the final and suddenly Arsenal have the opportunity (if not really the grounds) to announce that their manager is staying. Such a scenario would also present Wenger with the perfect moment to quit.
But with a loss to City at the weekend -- or worse, the apocalyptic scenario of losing to Spurs in a cup final after having finished below them for the first time in over 20 years -- there is no good outcome whatsoever.
If any manager in the history of English football cannot be accused of failing to take the FA Cup seriously it is the six-time winner Wenger, repeatedly excelling even at a time when the competition has been steadily devalued, but this season he has reason to take it more seriously than ever.
In the absence of any positive outcomes in the league, it is his only possible salvation.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport