November 20, 2014

Whither Arsenal?

While Thursday marked the 19th anniversary of Arsenal's franchise-changing hire of Arsene Wenger, the annual grumblings over the lack of elite success again follow "Le Professeur" heading into Sunday's high-profile clash with table-topping Manchester United at The Emirates.

Even with back-to-back FA Cup titles, it's the lack of bigger trophies - no Premier League titles since "The Invincibles" in 2003-04 as part of their 49-match unbeaten run and, of course, no Champions League titles despite advancing out of the group stage every season since 2000-01 - that lead to a seemingly annual inquest over whether Wenger will ever win another important piece of silverware.

These yearly failures have long been points of frustration and derision within the fan base of the London side. Despite finishing seven points behind eventual champions Chelsea last season, Wenger's side never mounted a title challenge while coasting to direct qualifying for Europe's most prestigious club tournament.

This season has already seen the Gunners (4-1-2) put forth staggering displays of inconsistency, lurching about without true direction on a match-to-match basis. The momentum of a 5-2 victory at previously unbeaten Leicester City last weekend in which Alexis Sanchez bagged a hat trick was shockingly blunted with their 3-2 home loss to Greek side Olympiakos on Tuesday, a defeat which left Arsenal in last place in Group F and a daunting task to even progress to the knockout round since their next two matches are against German powerhouse and group pace-setters Bayern Munich.

"We only have ourselves to blame for conceding them and now we have to rest, work harder, and then on Sunday come back and have a good game," defender Gabriel told the team's official website. "We just need to be calm. We have to work hard and focus on putting in a good performance (against Manchester United)."

Wenger faced scrutiny for again starting goalkeeper David Ospina in Champions League play over Petr Cech. Ospina fumbled a corner kick over the goal line in the first half to give Olympiakos a 2-1 advantage, and conceded the winner almost immediately after Sanchez had pulled them level in the second half.

After testily defending his decision post-match Tuesday, Wenger again hit out at the media Friday, threatening to walk out after being asked a question regarding the on-going sniping between him and Chelsea counterpart Jose Mourinho, who has long reveled in being Wenger's chief antagonist.

''I think you lack a bit of creativity in the press at the moment, that you follow a bandwagon that is very, very, very, very boring. I don't go along with that,'' Wenger said. ''If you have any interesting questions for Sunday's game I can answer, but apart from that let's not come back always to the same story.

''One pundit says something on television and all behind that they repeat exactly the same thing. It is quite boring because nobody came out with numbers of this game where the game was won and lost,'' he added. ''It is quite depressing to read that and to hear that, to all come just to the same conclusion and not to have watched well what has gone on on the pitch.''

Sanchez may have been the only player to escape a reported midweek tirade by Wenger on his players given his recent form. The Chilean, though, has yet to find the back of the net in three lifetime matches against Manchester United despite putting six of his 11 shots on target.

Theo Walcott likely will be Sanchez's running partner again after he had a goal and an assist Tuesday, giving him six goals in his last seven matches for club and country. Olivier Giroud remains an option since he also scored against Leicester but sat out Tuesday due to a red card issued in the Matchday 1 loss at Dinamo Zagreb.

There have been points where Manchester United's fates have fluctuated as wildly as Arsenal's, but there seems to be growing cohesion and consistency in Year 2 of the Louis van Gaal regime. Like the Gunners, the Red Devils surprisingly lost their Champions League opener. But United (5-1-1) have responded with four wins on the bounce in all competitions and followed up their 3-0 rout of Sunderland last weekend by rallying past German side VfL Wolfsburg 2-1 on Wednesday at Old Trafford.

After conceding an early goal, Juan Mata equalised for United from the spot and set up Chris Smalling's match-winner.

''We started off sloppy and with that goal you give yourself a big battle to get back into the game,'' Smalling said. ''But after that we created a lot of chances and I think it was a deserved victory.''

It's been a hectic stretch for Manchester United - Sunday will be their seventh match that started with a 3-1 win over Liverpool on Sept. 12 - and van Gaal is giving the players off Friday in a bid to keep them physically sharp for this early crunch encounter.

"The solution is recovery, recovery, recovery," the Dutchman said Thursday at his pre-match news conference. "That is why it's so difficult to prepare for the match against Arsenal. As a manager, you want to prepare on the pitch and you cannot do it because you need the freshness of the players, so then there's another solution - to change your squad.

"(Friday), they have a day off because they've already had two weeks with no day off. We have to wait and see for Saturday and then I can make decisions."

While Wayne Rooney finally broke his league duck with his first goal of the season against Sunderland, his club-scoring form hasn't affected United much due to the stunning start of teenager Anthony Martial, who has three goals in as many league matches. Rooney, though, netted the match-winner in last season's corresponding fixture and has 13 goals in 27 lifetime matches versus Arsenal.

The teams also drew 1-1 at Old Trafford last season. In between, Arsenal bounced United in the FA Cup quarterfinals with a 2-1 road victory.

The Red Devils are unbeaten in the last eight league meetings (5-3-0) since a 1-0 loss at the Emirates on May 1, 2011, a run that started with an 8-2 shellacking in the 2011-12 season.

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