DEFEAT leaves Arsenal facing a mammoth challenge in the remaining three months of the season. And there is far more than a domestic pot resting on it; nothing less than the credibility of manager Arsene Wenger’s masterplan is at stake.
The Frenchman (right) has tested the patience of even the most ardent Gunners fan over the past half a dozen years with his insistence that this group of players, if given time to blossom, would win trophies.
This season, after several false dawns, his squad has finally threatened to prove him right. The Carling Cup final against modest opposition was the perfect stage for Arsenal to shake off their tag of eternal bridesmaids. Instead this morning they will wake with the familiar ache of defeat in a pivotal fixture.
They came close in 2007, when the north Londoners lost the same final to Chelsea. Ten days later their Champions League and FA Cup tilts had also died with a whimper.
Wenger promised they’d improve and they did, blazing a trail in the top flight the following season, until a draw at Birmingham prompted a domestic and European collapse.
The next year they reached FA Cup and Champions League semi-finals but lost to Chelsea and Manchester United, and then last season showed flickers of promise without troubling the open-top bus.
Yet again yesterday they faltered when tangible reward was within their grasp, and again it will be put down to their own failings. They will be depicted as bottlers, pretty but mentally weak, and Wenger as the eternal apologist.
His task now is to scrape this team off the floor and convince them they can win one of three trophies still available. Because if they don’t this time, who is honestly going to believe him next year?