Arsenal know Atletico are capable of turning Arsene Wenger's dream swan song into a nightmare
The finality of Arsene Wenger's revelation that he will quit as Arsenal manager at the end of the season means a potential universe of possible dream endings has been whittled down to just one. There is simply no other way to wrap this all up cleanly. It is unfortunate, then, that in Thursday's Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid, they face a nightmare scenario.
If it is written in the stars, it will be in Lyon, on May 16, that Wenger wears his club suit for the final time, answers one last question from the media and takes one final flight with his squad. France. Back where it all began. And with a chance of winning the first European trophy of his career in the Europa League final. It is almost so alluring a prospect as to be convincing. But let's inject a bit of realism here.
The immediate obstacle standing in Arsenal's way could not be more daunting in the second tier of European football. Atletico Madrid: the team sitting second in La Liga with two Champions League final appearances in the past four years. If, ultimately, Diego Simeone's Atletico were twice unable to prevent Real Madrid from writing their storybook endings on the biggest European stage -- with their losses in Lisbon and Milan -- they are still more than capable of vanquishing Arsenal's dream.
Wenger encapsulated the challenge facing Arsenal quite neatly in his prematch news conference on Wednesday: "I would say one of their strengths is that they have no obvious weakness," he said. "They are a very efficient team and a team who can use every weak moment of their opponent. Overall I must say that is their main strength."
It is no surprise that Simeone's name is mentioned when you canvass Arsenal supporters about potential replacements for Wenger. In many ways, he is the ideological opposite of the man in the home dugout and, amid a fervent desire for change, that makes his qualities desirable.
This is a man who is versed in the tradition of "anti-futbol" -- a coach who builds the stingiest defences in Europe and who after defeating Chelsea in a 2014 Champions League semifinal thanked the mothers of his players "because they were born with balls this big." In his education, approach and testosterone-fuelled public image, he is everything Wenger is not.
It will make for a fascinating comparison on Thursday night: the professor vs. the general. It will also give Arsenal a flavour of another path now open to them. But in truth, a man like Simeone could not replace Wenger -- or certainly could not carry on his work and perpetuate the "values" he talks so much about having imparted during his 22 years in charge.
It was clear from his news conference on Friday that Ivan Gazidis wants to retain the essential aspects of "Wengerism" without the man himself. "It's important to me that we continue the football values that Arsene has instilled in the club," he said. "I want to see someone who can continue that for our fans and our fans want to see that, someone who will continue to play exciting, progressive football that gets people interested and excited in the games we play."
Simeone would certainly provoke a culture shock if he was made manager at Arsenal, but it would almost certainly be too great. Coming from a diametrically opposed position and aesthetic, the essential elements of Wenger could not survive. Arsenal would be effectively unrecognisable.
All of which is not to say that Atletico are a dour, defensive team. You don't reach Champions League finals with a team that doesn't know how to score goals; it's just that they are more likely to win 1-0 than 3-2. In that trait, they have much in common with the George Graham era at Arsenal: a time now unfairly maligned as the days of "boring, boring Arsenal" when in fact they had a repertoire of skilful attackers to complement a rigorously constructed defence. Players like Ian Wright, David Rocastle and Anders Limpar.
Atleti have their own, of course. Antoine Griezmann is the star attraction, but Diego Costa, a familiar foe for Arsenal, has been included in the travelling squad, even if he remains a doubt for the match. They clearly have the firepower to cause Arsenal damage.
And yet, if there is some hope when facing this tightly drilled and dangerous Atleti it comes in the fact that Simeone has a small squad that is showing signs of tiring -- with only three wins in their past eight games. Maybe Wenger's announcement will galvanise the fans as promised and the Emirates will be turned into a cauldron on Thursday night, but the lukewarm reception for Wenger during the win over West Ham at the weekend wasn't a hugely promising sign.
Either way, Atleti and Simeone are unlikely to be receptive to fairytales. If Wenger really wants his perfect ending, he is going to have to work incredibly hard for it.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport