The FA Cup has been something of a saviour for Arsene Wenger in recent years. It is, of course, the only trophy he has won since 2004. It was the competition that ended the infamous trophy drought and it could yet serve a similar purpose this season for the Gunners.
This time, though, the draw has been less kind. With the biggest guns English football has to offer still battling for the Cup, Manchester City are Arsenal’s Sunday semi-final opponents with either Chelsea or Spurs awaiting them. That is not a line-up that will have too many Arsenal fans jumping for joy considering the poor displays they often produce against their top six rivals.
One minor hope for Arsenal came in the form of their victory over the dropping-like-a-stone Middlesbrough. Despite seeing their lead cut out by Alvaro Negredo, the Gunners found a way to win in what was a potentially tough fixture for a side suffering a torrid second half of the season. It was a win that keeps them at least in the conversation for a top four finish.
A certain grit that Arsenal are often criticised for lacking was shown at the Riverside. A change in system gives hope that Wenger can yet change, too, which might just be enough to keep the Frenchman in his job for another year with the managerial merry-go-round clearly static right now.
Wenger meets a man of similar footballing ideals at Wembley, though. In the shape of Pep Guardiola, Wenger takes on a fellow footballing intellectual, an articulate football philosopher rather than a motivator. They are cut from similar cloth in some respects and have both had massive impacts on the sport in the last two decades.
Guardiola values the artistic product of his teams highly, just as Wenger does. Producing aesthetically pleasing football is as important as winning for Guardiola and Wenger, their teams must play the game in a certain way and win with style. They are idealists in that sense, rather than win-at-all-costs machines like some of their peers.
The merits and consequences of such an approach are discussed at length by any football fan. Whether there is a ‘right’ way to play the game or not, each watcher of the world’s largest sport will have – at one time or another – been in awe at the football played by Guardiola and Wenger’s sides.
The real challenge for Wenger this weekend, though, is that Guardiola has managed to combine the desire for beautiful football with an end product. Although he has underachieved in his first season in England, Guardiola is a proven winner. Wenger’s history as a serial winner is only barely in memory and he has – yet again – left himself clinging onto the FA Cup as needed relief from an abysmal league campaign. It looks like this weekend could see a handing over of the baton from Wenger to Guardiola as English football’s Philosopher-in-Chief.
With the attacking prowess City can field, another face-saving Cup might just be a step too far for Wenger and Arsenal.