Arsenal’s weariness understandable after battery of season-defining tests

Season that once promised much glory now may hinge on FA Cup

Arsenal's Olivier Giroud, left, celebrates his goal against Sunderland during their English Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium on February 22, 2014.  Darren Staples / Reuters
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If it feels familiar, it is because it is. It is yet another test of Arsenal’s mettle. Yet another game where they have to demonstrate they have the temperament to accompany their undoubted talent.

After a nine-year wait for a trophy, the burden of proof forever rests with Arsenal. They have to prove themselves more often than most.

And so another week brings another test. With Arsenal’s title hopes fading swiftly and Uefa Champions League elimination this week likely, the FA Cup probably represents their last chance to secure silverware. The quarter-final against Everton on Saturday becomes another occasion where Arsenal will be under the microscope. As ever, there will be plenty of pundits eager to confirm their suspicion that Arsene Wenger’s side are mentally frail and doomed to fail on the major stage.

Yet, if they believe they have plenty of evidence, it is partly due to the sheer volume of big games. It is rare any teams plays as many in one season, certainly before reaching a final.

Those complaining about the Premier League fixture list deserve little sympathy; everyone has to play each other home and away. But Arsenal’s case is different: while Wenger has been outwardly stoic, he could be forgiven for privately feeling they have been unfortunate.

Everton follow Liverpool and Tottenham among Arsenal's FA Cup opponents. Their League Cup campaign ended against Chelsea. Thus far, they have been pitted against Marseille, Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

That has meant a dozen seismic games added to the 12 they could expect against top-seven opposition in the Premier League. It is hard to avoid the thought that if Arsenal beat Everton, they will face Manchester City in the FA Cup and that, in the improbable event of them eliminating Bayern in Europe, their reward will be a meeting with Real Madrid or Barcelona.

That, it seems, is the way their season is destined to go. There is no release, no respite, no chance to catch their breath, rest their premier players or ease others into the side.

It has been particularly difficult because, for the last five months, the various competitions have buffeted them between elite opponents. In October and November, they had a sequence that read: Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, Manchester United. Then came the December run of Everton, Napoli, City, Chelsea.

More recently, February brought clashes with Liverpool, United, Liverpool again and Bayern before, and interrupted only by the win over Sunderland and the visit to their bogey team Stoke, a manic March where Everton, Bayern, Tottenham, Chelsea and City await.

It is an extended examination, a test conducted – if the annual assessment at Stoke is included – over 900 minutes, rather than the standard 90. It is little wonder, either, that Arsenal are showing signs of fatigue. They already haveplayed more major matches than most clubs do in an entire season.

The latest may depend on whether Wenger deems Mesut Ozil ready to return to the starting 11 and if the German can banish the memory of his missed penalty against Bayern, together with the question of whether Olivier Giroud has recovered from the battering he took at the Britannia Stadium.

While Wenger’s failure to sign an established striker either last summer or in January looks still more of a mistake than it appeared at the time, fewer of Arsenal’s other problems are of their own making. A demanding schedule has been married with a crippling injury list.

Theo Walcott’s season has ended with the winger playing in just five of those 24 (and possibly more) season-defining games. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has played in only four, to date. Aaron Ramsey will miss a sixth in succession.

Without them, the weight on Ozil’s slim shoulders has been greater, the reliance on Giroud all the more pronounced. It is why, should Arsenal finally secure that elusive trophy, there should be no question that they have earned it. This season has been a never-ending exercise in doing things the hard way.

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