Hull final is feast or famine for weakening Wenger


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Hull City could be the new Birmingham City – that’s the feeling after Steve Bruce led the Tigers into the FA Cup final less than a year after guiding them back to the Premier League.

Birmingham, of course, represent the lowest point of Arsenal’s nine-year trophy drought to date. In 2011 the unfancied, soon-to-be-relegated Blues stunned the Gunners in the League Cup final and embarked on a European lap of honour from the Championship, where they have been ever since.

Hull look like a much better side than Alex McLeish’s doomed Brummies did back then, though. This is also their first FA Cup final, so the squad and the fans will return to Wembley starving for cup success. Finally, the Londoners find their status as an elite English club under increasing scrutiny with each campaign in which they tread water.

So, if Hull City lift the 2014 FA Cup, especially one year after the magic that was Wigan’s success over Manchester City, it’d be wrong of anyone to try and put Arsenal's resultant flop up there with that darkest hour, three and a bit years ago.

One person might disagree though. One person would surely regard failure to end the trophy drought at Wembley next month as the Gunners' lowest point of the last, frustrating decade.

That person is Arsene Wenger.

In fact, forget missing out on the top four – look at the Europa League semi-finals this year, it's hardly a flea market - I’d dare say Wenger’s future at the helm of the club he has led for almost two full decades, a tenure which encompasses an undefeated league season 10 years back and perhaps the finest brand of attacking football in the domestic game’s storied history, depends on the result of this FA Cup final.

It’s fitting that the Invincibles side of ’04 comes up in reference to this point. It’s difficult to imagine that squad accepting anything close to what the current Arsenal crop – under the very same visionary – settle for on an annual basis.

‘Settle’ seems to be the best term for it, given their tendency to fade as each season progresses and the lack of an appetite present in the teams who now enjoy the success the Gunners used to.

Yes, the likes of Chelsea and Man City come armed with blank cheques, but the likes of Birmingham and Hull do not. All four teams – and several others – share the common trait of being able to get to a proverbial finish line ahead of Arsenal. It’s because they all want it more.

The Invincibles, in their heyday, were actually quite disliked. Successful teams rarely are adored by anyone but their own, but the class of a Thierry Henry or a Dennis Bergkamp also came with the dives of a Pires and the almost Roy Keane-level bullying of a Patrick Vieira.

Like it or not, that mean streak was what pushed a talented squad over the top and into the history books.

Yes, today’s Arsenal come short of the late 1990s and early 2000s in sheer talent, but they, and Wenger, are still good enough to be winning silverware. Their spike in form once £40+ million signing Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid joined the side wasn’t just because they gained another world class player. They stepped it up in every department, momentarily, because the transfer was a statement of intent. It empowered the Gunners for a short while.

There isn’t nearly enough of that at the Emirates, but not all hope is lost.

If we are to believe that Wenger truly is still up for the job in which he raised the bar at one stage, that desire needs to return – or else the club would be better off bringing in a fresh mind to lead the charge.

Ending the barren run after nine years with the FA Cup would be a huge step in the right direction, and it’d be just in the nick of time for Arsene.

How close they came to being sent out by Wigan – the cup holders, mind you, who defeated City both this year and last – isn’t a cause for concern. Arsenal fought to stay in it, and they did. City didn’t.

If anything, the narrow penalties win over the Latics showed exactly what Wenger and his men need if they’re to finally remove the biggest stigma of their recent decline and once again taste major tournament glory.

And while Hull produced some classy attacking of their own in the 5-3 win over the Blades, they were also guilty of some hideously submissive defending, including ball-watching for all three goals conceded and an unforgivable switching off as soon as they made it 1-1, allowing Nigel Clough’s men to regain the lead.

Big-money signings, squad depth and individual class shine through over a 38 or 46-game league season, and to a lesser extent the group stage- and two-legged- format of European competition.

But the very foundation of the FA Cup’s legendary ‘magic’ is that it simply comes down to who wants it more on the day. Just ask Cloughie and his United heroes.

If Arsenal can out-fight Hull on May 17, almost a decade of growing weary, fading out and settling for second-best or worst will end. A gigantic monkey will be off the club’s back and the rebuilding process as one of Europe’s foremost clubs may even be able to commence.

It’s no longer a long haul. It’s as little as 90 minutes on a stage with which they are well acquainted. One match. One duel.

If Wenger and his troops settle for second-best then, yet again, will they ever again hunger for more than that, at least in this current regime?

Probably not.

If Wenger cannot beat Bruce to the buffet table of success at Wembley, his legendary era as Arsenal manager will surely starve to death in the summer.

Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter @liamhappe

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