Brilliant one day, off the pace the next. Arsenal FC's season has been hard to endure for supporters grown accustomed to consistently high standards. Arsenal have yet to win back-to-back games this year and as they welcome Liverpool FC on Sunday, they are in danger of missing out on a place in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 1998/99. That north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur FC hold the coveted fourth spot makes the situation all the more difficult to stomach.
Arsène Wenger's young side were given a standing ovation after eliminating Real Madrid CF from the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday. Another daunting test lies in wait on Sunday when Arsenal cannot afford to drop further points if they are to return to the competition come August. Like Liverpool last term, European nights appear to offer welcome respite from a tough domestic campaign. Partly by design, partly by default, Wenger has had to rely on youth this season, and it seems the European game is more to his youngsters' liking.
"We're maybe not so physically strong," said midfielder Fredrik Ljungberg. "It doesn't really matter in the Champions League but maybe in the Premiership we have suffered a little bit for it, but I think in Europe we look really sharp. Unfortunately, we have not been able to cope with the physical side and we have suffered from that. In Europe we have been allowed to play more football."
'Great to celebrate'
That was in evidence on Wednesday as Arsenal defended resolutely and attacked with verve, playing with a freedom and confidence so often missing in the Premiership. But as Fulham FC discovered last Saturday, Wenger's tyros are beginning to find their feet in England as well. Arsenal won 4-0 at Craven Cottage and could have scored more. With such a strong performance to build on, Ljungberg is hoping this positive vibe becomes the norm. "It feels good to be able to celebrate about something," he said after seeing off Madrid's challenge. "It has been a hard season, we've lost a lot so there have been some downs, but it feels really good to celebrate now."
Liverpool, in contrast, arrive at Highbury deflated, desperate to put Wednesday's defeat by SL Benfica behind them. While Arsenal's fledgling defence has grown in stature, Liverpool's attack has wilted. A single goal separated the sides when they met last month, but that victory is a distant memory for a Liverpool team that has lost the art of scoring. The drought Peter Crouch, Fernando Morientes, Djibril Cissé and Robbie Fowler are suffering is put down to a loss of confidence, a draining of self-belief. The same might have been said of Arsenal earlier this year, now nothing could be further from the truth.
"This group is beginning to create a real atmosphere," midfielder Mathieu Flamini said. "I believe that is essential for a big team. There is a real team spirit being created, and you see that on the pitch. There is a lot of communication, we really work for each other, more and more, and that makes the difference at the end of the match." As confidence grows, so too the belief that Tottenham can be caught, and that unlike Liverpool last term, Arsenal won't have to win the UEFA Champions League to earn the right to play in it again. Consistency will be key, and in this mood, Arsenal may have finally hit their stride.
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