Monday, February 20, 2006

Arsenal's Last Chance at Salvation?

It is hard not to envision this as perhaps the most important game for Arsenal this year, this clash with Real Madrid at the Bernabeau, especially since Dennis Bergkamp is making himself available for an away fixture some 500 km away from Highbury. Obviously, the state of Arsenal is dire enough to force Bergkamp to find some alternative transport to Madrid in order to be on the bench for this Champions League Matchup.

Arsenal has lost 9 games this year; last year the Gunners lost a total of 14 games for the entire season. With no FA Cup, Carling Cup or Premiership title to play for, Arsenal has only the Champions League to fight for, also that 4th spot in the table is proving elusive to them. Much like Liverpool of last year, the Gunners face the same fate of missing out on Champions League action for next year. Unlike Liverpool, the bulk of Arsenal's squad is young and inexperienced, and most importantly, the veterans have not stepped up to lead this callow group to perform to their ability. While Liverpool had an experienced core of Gerrard, Riise, Hypia and Carragher, Arsenal has benefited very little from the play of Henry, Pires, Ljungberg and Gilberto.

Arsene Wenger's run of form has come to an end, and this is the beginning of a new era. It will be difficult to lose Henry, one of the top three players in the world in my and many others' opinions, but the reality of world football necessitates this occurring. At some point in the next five or so years, Henry will most likely cease to be the player we know him as now and Arsenal will be forced to find a replacement. As enjoyable as it would be to continue watching what TH14 does on the pitch, it would be bittersweet if it came at the expense of the rest of the squad, and given recent lapses in defense, it would seem that the squad does need some retooling. More options at midfield, and a strengthening of the back line seem to be the most urgent needs at the moment, needs that will continue to be glaring through to the next year if an acquisition is not made in the off-season.

It is easy to focus on the talk of payback and the sniping about pitches and last year's CL among Barca and Chelsea, but this matchup of Real Madrid and Arsenal hold dire consequences for Arsenal. The Gunners are six points off of the fourth team (and final CL spot) in the EPL, while Real Madrid are surging to close the gap of seven points between them and La Liga Leaders Barcelona. If Arsenal begin quickly (and Bergkamp can summon up an effective performance in the hole), there is an opportunity to leave Madrid with a goal or two; however, given their recent form, as evidenced by their 1-0 loss to Liverpool (which should have been a 4-0 loss), there is an even stronger possibility of leaking in 2 or 3.

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