After overcoming AC Milan in the second knockout round of the Europa League, Arsenal can now start to see their path to the final in Lyon with the Gunners drawn against CSKA Moscow in the quarter final stage.
Whilst it may have appeared that Wenger’s empire at the Emirates Stadium was crumbling all around him in the wake of disastrous defeats to Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion, Europa League progression has somewhat steadied the ship.
It will not serve to bring an end to the apathy amongst supporters, that ship has long since sailed, however there is now a genuine belief within London Colney that the team has what it takes to lift the trophy and repeat Manchester United’s trick of qualifying for the Champions League through the back door.
There is very little left for the North London club to play for in the Premier League, not that the French coach will ever admit it. Arsenal are 12 points off the top four as it is and domestic cups have been a source of disappointment this term, even if the club reached the Carabao Cup final.
The only chance of success is winning the Europa League, and for the first time you really get the sense that Wenger himself is aware of this.
Winning both matches in the tie against the Italian giants was illuminating for the Gunners, they arrived at the San Siro in a despairing situation with nobody really giving them any hope of progression. This was furthered by the good results Gennaro Gattuso’s side had picked up since December.
In the end the tie proved to disregard both of the aforementioned factors, Arsenal aren’t as bad as people thought heading into Milan, whilst the Rossoneri aren’t as good as many were perhaps giving them credit for.
Thursday’s second leg could have been more problematic had it not been for Danny Welbeck winning a penalty just after Hakan Calhanoglu’s opening goal, but you always felt that Arsenal were a threat in attack.
CSKA Moscow present an interesting challenge, if only for the logistics of the away trip, although by the time the match arrives, the climate in the Russian capital will have shifted significantly towards the warmer end of the scale.
The Russian club do though have confidence on their side, Ahmed Musa’s January return has boosted the club significantly and in knocking out Lyon they produced one of the shocks of the round. Their 3-2 victory in France displayed their attacking power, although they really shouldn’t cause Arsenal too much trouble.
Atletico Madrid are the standout team left in the tournament, they are head and shoulders above all other participants and are rightly considered the overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy. Some will suggest that with Champions League qualification likely to come through a second placed finish in LaLiga, Los Colchoneros might not be taking the continental trophy as seriously as others but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Whilst many believe Atleti to be a superpower in the game at this point, every single trophy is still incredibly important to a club that has lived in the shadow of their local rivals for many, many years.
Champions League elimination at the group stage was seen as an embarrassing failure, although it actually served to bring Diego Simeone closer to the club, he extended his contract and has spoken of a desire to keep improving on multiple occasions.
Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of a mediocre Sevilla team was a further failure, yet with Diego Costa now in tow, you get the sense that the team are back to where they were last season and that is a frightening proposition for any team left in the Champions League this season, never mind the Europa League.
It’s difficult to gauge Wenger’s position at Arsenal, a large majority of the fan-base are eager for change, whilst those in power at the club don’t actually appear to have the power to force any kind of change.
The Frenchman’s legacy at the club is nothing short of phenomenal, although one of the drawbacks of such a legacy is that he retains ultimate control over matters at the club, most notably his own future.
Ivan Gazidis has attempted to level the playing field, so to speak, in recent times with the hiring of a new head of recruitment in Sven Mislintat, and the restructure of the club’s medical team both being seen as a priority for the chief executive.
Don’t misconstrue this as Gazidis launching a power play against the French coach, he has as much respect for Wenger as anybody, however he’s seen how Manchester United seemed to freefall once Sir Alex Ferguson retired and is attempting to put a structure in place to avoid a repeat.
Unfortunately, the freefall has already begun with Wenger still in his post, to be 12 points off the top four by March is an awful performance by Arsenal’s standards, this can’t be overlooked. A decline has started at the club, and you wonder if the veteran coach has it within him to steer the ship back to calmer waters.
Whether or not he will leave at the end of the season, or march on defiantly into the last year of his contract is unclear, however for the moment there is a tangible goal for Arsenal football club.
They can see the Europa League as a lottery ticket back into the Champions League, and they are only five matches away from striking lucky. With this path now drawn, you can expect the club to give everything to secure the trophy as one streak of light in a dismal campaign.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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