We Need This One

If there is one game that Arsenal Football Club absolutely must win this season, this is it.

The Manchester United result has been flogged to death, specifically THAT substitution and our captain's reaction to it. I won't revisit it for long, it being eons after the fact. All I'll say is that if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain really was ill and or carrying a knock (though that explanation reeks of Manuel Almunia's "injury" to me), Yossi Benayoun was on the bench. He may not be banging in the goals this season, but he invariably puts in a shift defensively. He'd have been far less likely to give the Manchester United attackers the old bullfighting "ole!" treatment. Right word, wrong context, Andrei.

Oh, while I'm at it, I drunkenly e-mailed myself my ratings of the match - here they are for completion's sake:

Szczesny 7, Vermaelen 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Djourou 4 (Yennaris 6), Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Arshavin 5), Song 6, Ramsey 6, Rosicky 6, Walcott 5, van Persie 7

Man of the Match: I may have to destroy all copies of my season preview - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was awesome against the defending champions.

With that out of the way, allow me to explain why I put so much importance on today's match. While Arsenal supporters are (in a broad sense) sharply and at times angrily divided into "Arsene Still Knows" and "Arsene's Head on a Pike" camps, all can agree that the club is in a right old state this season. Qualification for the Champions' League looks questionable at this stage, which in turn puts serious doubt on Robin van Persie's future. This is well-trod ground, of course.

For me, the one thing that can get us onside again is some beacon of positivity. In short, we need a trophy. There's a reason why last season's League Cup debacle remains so vividly in our nightmares, whereas in seasons past it would have been no more than a minor inconvenience. The mentality of a club is often self-perpetuating. I swear, the only thing that keeps Manchester United ticking is the equivalent of muscle memory. This lot are not exactly their 1999 vintage. But, they know how to close games out, how to win when a match hangs threadbare on the margins.

Then, you have us. Whatever our frustrations can be at times, there are flashes of greatness that appear ever so fleetingly. These are for the most part highly skilled players who at certain times have shown immense will and desire to win. People who rage at the side's apparent lack of mental fortitude - myself included in moments of red mist - miss the point. These are professionals who badly want to reverse their fortunes and start winning games and shiny metal things.

I wonder if they can ever re-learn how, barring major changes.

Losing teams often have personnel that are just as skilled, if not more so, than the ones celebrating at the end. But, put United or increasingly their city rivals in a match like Fulham where the referee's out to get them, and they get at least a point out of it. Put them in a match against a frisky Swansea side, and they still win. Against a United team ravaged by injury and playing poorly for long stretches, City probably wins that game.

It's inertia, borne from a mindset that doesn't begin from a belief that calamity is just around the corner.

Andrei Arshavin, to me, is a perfect example. We all know what the man can do when the stars align - that magical day at Anfield immediately springing to mind (just imagine if we had our current defensive line and keeper for that one - it'd be 4-2 to us at worst). I was just thinking on the train today how, with the passion that this sport elicits, the pelters come at him doused in vitriol, without clear thought as to how things got this bad.

Don't get me wrong - I don't believe that Arshavin should so much as make the bench these days. It's just that I think we lose sight of the fact sometimes that these guys are human beings, and subject to the same twists of fate that real life brings to all of us. Frankly, I think the guy would be a fucking riot to have a vodka with - trust me, you'd probably feel the same if you ever saw the answers to the questions fans send him on his website. He's kind of like football's answer to Ilya Bryzgalov (start from 1:40 or so).

What I'm getting at is that in a vacuum, Andrei Arshavin is a fantastic player. But, I don't think it will ever happen for him again at Arsenal. He is one of a few, along with Marouane Chamakh, Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou, and increasingly Theo Walcott who I think need to move on in order to have the best chance of getting their careers back on track. I honestly don't bear them any ill will, it's just that things have not remotely worked out here at Arsenal, and I fear it not only contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of doubt and pessimism for themselves, but it seeps into the squad as a whole.

If we are to rescue the development of the shining young talents here like Wojceich Szczesny, the rapidly-developing professionals like Laurent Koscielny and if we are to capture the very best of Robin van Persie's prime, then the winds of change badly need to roll through Ashburton Grove.

That said, the one thing that may salvage not only the season but this version of Arsenal itself would be winning the FA Cup. Sure, it's not the league championship that we so badly desire. But, let's face facts - we lost in the League Cup to the same disinterested Manchester City side that was summarily dispatched by Liverpool this past weekend...you know, the same Liverpool going through an eerily-similar situation to ours. It wasn't a bad effort by any stretch of the imagination, but it was one of those matches decided on the margins where once again we fell short where others have succeeded.

Then, you have the Champions' League. My hope of course is that we somehow can repeat past glories in the city of Milan and defeat the side currently nipping Juventus' heels at the top of Serie A. My heart believes it is possible, but my head looks at their defensive record and the fact that they're banging in goals for fun domestically, and I just don't know how it'd be done...especially in our state right now.

Should the above all be true, that the league is gone and so is Europe after this round of fixtures, then that leaves the FA Cup. Here, even my Debbie Downer head believes that anything is possible. Manchester City are already out. The conclusion of this round will also guarantee the departure of either Liverpool or a reeling Manchester United (don't believe the hype, their win over us was far more down to our frailties than anything they did). Even if it is United that advances, this last game showed that we can stand against them on something approaching even terms and give them everything they ever wanted barring any more mystifying substitutions.

Aston Villa is a winnable game...they're not that strong. Beat them, and let's see who we get in the fifth round. This is a straight knockout tournament, and goofy stuff happens all the time. Win this one, go one step at a time, and maybe we find our lady Gooners wearing yellow ribbons come August.

Lose this one, though?

It doesn't bear thinking about.