Not since the 1997/98 season have Arsenal FC been absent from the UEFA Champions League group stage, but after defeat at Chelsea FC on Sunday, that run of 15 consecutive appearances may be drawing to an end.
Having drawn 1-1 with Southampton FC and lost 2-0 to Manchester City FC so far this month, the Gunners travelled to Stamford Bridge with just one point since the turn of the year – and they failed to add to that haul as goals from Juan Mata and Frank Lampard secured a 2-1 success for the hosts. As a result, sixth-placed Arsenal now lie seven points shy of north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur FC, who currently occupy the all-important fourth spot.
That seven-point gap is not the sole worry for Arsène Wenger's men either, as Spurs are not the only side making a tilt for the league's final UEFA Champions League place. Everton FC, traditionally strong finishers to the season, hold a three-point advantage over Arsenal, while Liverpool FC and West Bromwich Albion FC boast the same tally, albeit having both played one game more.
"We cannot afford to drop points any more if we want to be in the top four," commented Wenger, who steered his team to the UEFA Champions League final in 2006. "It's a concern. The table is the table. We have lost two big games in the last week [against Manchester City and Chelsea] and that's very damaging for us. It's very damaging for our position in the league and very difficult to swallow."
The Frenchman nonetheless believes that his squad contains enough quality to make a push for the top four, just as they did in the second half of last season. "There's a psychological ingredient in there for sure," he said. "There's a great spirit in the team. There's great quality in the team. The team has to believe more in the quality we have. You could see with ten men against Man City and today again that we can be dominant in the games. We have to do that from the start."
Should their league form continue to waver, the Gunners will be left needing to repeat Chelsea's feat of last season if they are to make it 16 consecutive appearances in Europe's premier club competition. The Blues finished sixth in the Premier League last term but went all the way in the UEFA Champions League, defeating FC Bayern München in the final to take England's last remaining berth – at fourth-placed Tottenham's expense.
With Bayern next up for the north London giants in the last 16 next month, that path to next season's group stage appears even more fraught with danger than the league route. Indeed, if Wenger can find a way to guide his men to the promised land once again, it would surely rank alongside some of his finest achievements.
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