By Shane Thomas
The intention of the Premier League season is to determine the merits of its respective clubs. After 9 months and 38 matches, the class will always rise to the top. It allows for the vagaries of player injuries, form and luck. A loss is seldom catastrophic as there's always a chance to make amends next week.
Cup competitions however, are altogether different. They reward not consistency but the ability to peak at key moments. To find the very best of yourself when it's needed the most. The demands increase when the occasion in question is a cup final.
And it's been something that Arsenal under Arsene Wenger's management have struggled with in recent years. The statistic about Arsenal failing to win a trophy since 2005 has been repeated so many times as to become tiresome. But since that most recent FA Cup success, Arsenal have made it to two competition finals (as well as 3 further semi-finals), losing 2-1 on both occasions.
Not only were the defeats narrow ones, but Arsenal took the lead in both games, and were unable to hold on to full-time. And I think the comparative youth of Arsenal counted against them during each encounter.
To raise your game at important moments, as well as overcoming adversity, is the mark of winners, a quality that rarely goes hand-in-hand with youthful energy and exuberance. Even the great Ajax side that won the Champions League in 1995 had experienced heads like Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard to steer them to success. In previous seasons, it was easy to justify near misses by stating how young and inexperienced the Arsenal players were. Callowness is easy to accept when it's teemed with the expectation of getting better results in the future.
Well the future is here and now for Arsenal. Failure can no longer be explained away by excuses of being jejune. With the exception of Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny, the Arsenal first team are all established international players - and it's not as if Wilshere & Szczesny have underperformed themselves this season.
With the Carling Cup final on Sunday, Arsenal go into the match against Birmingham as strong favourites to end their trophy duck. And for the sake of the club, it is paramount that they secure victory. As has been stated many times before, the Carling Cup has proved a launching pad to sustained success. Chelsea's triumph in 2005 precipitated two Premier League titles, while Manchester United's success the following season led to three titles on the spin, as well as the Champions League in 2008.
Success begats success. It's all well and good players and coaching staff stating that they believe they can win trophies, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and since 2005, Arsenal have been unable to hold their nerve when glory has been in sight. This team seems to have a greater belief than they've displayed in the past (their focus in beating Barcelona at The Emirates is testament to that).
But if Arsenal were to fall short on Sunday, the consequences could be disastrous for the club. When it comes to the acquiring of trophies, ability is never enough. You need to also have a mental assurance that victory will be yours. And if Arsenal fail to believe that they will, not can, but will win at Wembley, then why should they believe they can win any of football's more prestigious prizes?
Make no mistake, it may only be the Carling Cup, but this is one of the biggest matches of Arsene Wenger's career. It could decide the future of this current Arsenal side. Win on Sunday, and expect it to be the first of many baubles. Lose, and another trophy-less season beckons.
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