Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Arsenal Are in Freefall and Wenger Has No Safety Net

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Arsenal Are in Freefall and Wenger Has No Safety Net

Article excerpt

Byline: JamesOlley Chief Football Correspondent

ARSENAL 1 WATFORD 2 ARSENE WENGER has lost his safety net. Successive FA Cup Final victories helped mask shortcomings in the Premier League and Champions League over the past two seasons but not this time.

Watford deserved their victory at Emirates Stadium and it was perhaps beneficial for Wenger that the 8,300 travelling fans spent much of the second half in vocal delight as the noise drowned out the opprobrium directed towards the Frenchman from enraged Gunners supporters.

This was a devastating blow for Wenger at the start of a critical week. Of course, he does not share it publicly but there is a sense of resignation as Arsenal stare skyward at the mountainous task they face in trying to overturn a two-goal deficit at Barcelona to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

Nevertheless, a sixth consecutive last-16 exit, even allowing for the quality of their opponents on this occasion, will only reinforce the Groundhog Day feeling engulfing this club and the conclusion that Wenger has hit a glass ceiling he is unable to crack.

Wednesday's match at the Nou Camp and Saturday's trip to Everton assume colossal importance because there is no margin for error in the two competitions Arsenal have left to fight for.

And Wenger will not have the insurance policy of an FA Cup semi-final to come after Watford became the latest side to exploit the profligacy in attack and negligence in defence which has blighted the Gunners' campaign, particularly since the turn of the year. In 2014, Wenger faced hostility at Wembley from Arsenal fans during the semi-final and final as his team threatened to blow the chance to win their first trophy in nine years.

Despite falling behind to both Wigan and Hull, the Gunners found a way over the line and it was seen as a stepping stone to the game's biggest prizes. That is why Wenger signed a new three-year deal shortly afterwards.

However, fans frustrated at another false dawn last season were largely placated by retaining the Cup and Wenger could argue that by doing so and finishing third -- one higher than before -- they were making some, if not particularly quick, progress.

Now there is no hiding place. Wenger cannot use the Cup to deflect from League and European failures should they materialise again. He named a strong side in a bid to avoid this mess with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin recalled after missing Tuesday's fifth-round replay win at Hull.

Yet Watford's win was no fluke. They defended with greater cohesion and attacked with pace and purpose. Goals have been hard to come by in recent weeks but they scored two very different ones here. Gabriel should have been sent off for a nasty two-footed tackle on Troy Deeney but at least he had the grace to completely disappear as Odion Ighalo turned in the box to fire Watford in front. …

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