LONDON (Reuters) - Victory over Manchester City in Sunday’s League Cup final could salvage Arsenal’s season but would also provide more ammunition to those who deride the Gunners as a glorified ‘cup team’.
It is 14 years since Arsenal last won the Premier League, and they have finished in the top two only once in the past decade, albeit 10 points behind Leicester City in 2016.
Last season they finished fifth and Arsene Wenger’s side are currently being left behind in sixth spot as they prepare to face runaway Premier League leaders City at Wembley.
The annual debate about Wenger’s future will rage again in the closing months of the season — with the club’s supporters split between loyalists and those who believe the Frenchman needs to step aside if Arsenal are to challenge for the title.
Wenger will point to the three FA Cups he has won in the past four seasons, including last season when they denied Chelsea a league and cup double.
Arsenal have not won the League Cup since 1993 and despite reaching two finals under Wenger, the club has generally regarded the competition as disposable during his reign.
Which makes it all the more ironic that Arsenal’s season could boil down to what happens against Pep Guardiola’s City.
Even if Arsenal do win, however, former defender Nigel Winterburn says it might not be enough to prevent more of Wenger’s diehard support base drifting away.
“They need the victory but will that be enough for some supporters?” Winterburn, who played in Arsenal’s 1993 win against Sheffield Wednesday, told Sky Sports.
“I think the frustration with the fans and Wenger at the moment is that they accept that Arsenal are a very good Cup team, they have proved that in the FA Cup.
“But it’s the league title and the (lack of) challenge for the league title that people are becoming frustrated with.”
By the time Arsenal kick off on Sunday they could be 11 points behind the top four and 10 behind north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
Their hopes of returning to the Champions League may well depend on whether they can go on and win the Europa League, having stumbled into the last 16 despite a 2-1 home defeat by Swedish club Ostersunds on Thursday.
“That should be a wake-up call,” Winterburn said.
Wenger has won seven of his 12 cup finals with Arsenal, but all of the last three. His record still looks shoddy compared with that of Guardiola, however, who has bagged 11 out of 12.
Even if favourites City do stumble on Sunday, though, they are almost certain to be celebrating winning the Premier League in the Spring — a feeling Arsenal fans now begin each season hoping for but not expecting.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Hugh Lawson