No surprises at the Bridge

I couldn’t honestly say that Arsenal’s defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today came as a terrific surprise – it hasn’t been a good week or two for Arsene Wenger’s team.

What was billed as the defining period of the season (Premier League matches against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Chelsea, and a Fourth Round FA Cup tie at Stoke) has yielded one point and the end of Arsenal’s Wembley dream for another season. Anyone with a passing interest in today’s fixture could have predicted the Gunners might yet again suffer at the hands of Didier Drogba, and indeed the Ivorian managed to hit Arsenal where it hurts with two killer goals within the first half hour.

Funnily enough for most of the game Arsenal looked the better side at Stamford Bridge (in stark contrast to the desperate non-performance against Manchester United at the Emirates) but yet again there were those well-documented frailties where the team looked naive in defence, highly vulnerable to the counter-attack and seemed to be carrying a goalkeeper whose confidence looks to be completely shot. In spite of what the manager will say, Arsenal’s title challenge is certainly over now. Four games against the other title contenders, four defeats. Enough said.

But before we get into too much of an Arsenal downer it’s probably worth remembering what was predicted for the Gunners before the season started. If the media were to be believed the top three was going to consist of Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool (whatever happened to them?) and Arsenal were going to do well to roll in sixth behind Man City and Tottenham. While I don’t think third place should be the summit of Arsenal’s ambition, the club has definitely made progress since last year, but the question still has to be: how much longer can the team be an exciting project awaiting fruition?

We have, in Cesc Fabregas, unquestionably one of the finest midfielders in the world. His loyalty and commitment to Arsenal have been more than impressive and he never looks like he’s angling for a move to sunnier climes, but who could blame him if he succumbed to this summer’s inevitable advances from Barcelona? Arsenal haven’t won anything since the FA Cup in 2005 and players of his calibre can’t be expected to simply settle for Champions League qualification every year. The Gunners need to win something, and soon.

Don’t be in any doubt that Arsene Wenger has a rather better idea about what he’s doing than any of his critics, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone else in charge of the team, but the Champions League is now the last hope of silverware this season. If Arsenal are unable to surpass the top teams from Spain, Italy and the UK to lift this year’s trophy then the club will inevitably find itself at a crossroads in the summer. Will Fabregas stay? Will Wenger make a significant move in the transfer market? Will next season be more of the same?

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