Arsenal Faces Make or Break Month

2/11/2012 - Thierry Henry celebrates his later winner against Sunderland (Michael Regan / Getty Images)

It’s a horrible cliché to say that that any one stretch of matches is the most important of the season, especially when there are so many games remaining, but the way the schedule is laid out, I honestly believe that the next month will decide Arsenal’s fate this season.

Let’s take a look at what lies ahead. In the next 30 days, Arsenal have the following fixtures:

February 15 – Away to AC Milan (Champions League Round of 16)

February 18 – Away to Sunderland (FA Cup 5th round)

February 26 – Spurs at Home

March 3 – Away to Liverpool

March 6 – AC Milan at Home (Champions League Round of 16)

March 12 – Newcastle at Home

When the next 30 days have concluded, Arsenal could be still alive in two trophy competitions, and putting a little distance between themselves and the other contenders for 4th place in the Premier League, OR they could be out of everything except the Premier League, and could be looking up at as many as 6 clubs in the table, or, of course, they could be (as is more likely) somewhere in between. Every one of Arsenal’s next 6 matches is of great importance, as even their Premier League schedule includes two of Arsenal’s three main rivals for the 4th spot, oh and some other team from North London too.

Henry will soon be gone, back to New York, but Gervinho will be back (and hopefully without any mental or physical hangover from the ACN), as will Chamakh (of course, whether or not the return of the latter matters at all is a completely separate issue). Even though Mertesacker just picked up an injury at the weekend, it’s good to see Sagna back in the squad, and once Gibbs returns Arsenal will be able to field a squad that includes two center backs and two actual full backs for the first time in over a month. Though the return of Wilshere before season’s end may still be a pipe dream, the squad is nonetheless getting healthier overall, with Jenkinson and Diaby scheduled to return soon. Injuries seem to always be a story for Arsenal, but if Arsenal are to keep their run of Champions League appearances in tact, they have to be able to put injuries aside and get results with the players on the pitch.

It’s no excuses time for this Arsenal club. I don’t expect them to win all of their next 6 matches, but I do not think it unrealistic to expect them to move on in one of either the FA Cup or the Champions League, and to also keep hold of their current 4th position in the table. Let’s be honest, Sp*rs have a hell of a team this season, and are in great form, but Arsenal have them at The Emirates, and it’s not too much to ask for them to scrape a draw. In my view, the most important games will be away to Liverpool and Newcastle at home. Both are very winnable games, and honestly if Arsenal expect to finish the season in the top 4, they have to get 6 or 7 points out of their next three Premier League fixtures. All that’s left now is for Arsenal to go out and get the results they need. They face stiff competition, but if Arsenal want to continue to compete on a level with other top European clubs, and want to hang on to their best players, they have to go out there and win games over crucial stretches like the next month. No excuses.

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I don’t believe what I just saw: Arsenal 1-0 Leeds United

Getty Images Source: AFP

I was out at one of my favorite local bars over the weekend, sitting around a fire pit outside when I ran into a fellow from Stoke. Now that may not seem all that irregular, except that I live in the very middle of the United States. We don’t exactly get a ton of folks from Stoke here. The conversation naturally drifted to football and Stoke City and Arsenal, all the usual stuff, which led me to make an admission to my new friend from across the pond: that my mood on match day is far too tied to the fate of the Arsenal. He quickly told me that I’ve got to sort that out, that sport is not worth getting worked up over, and, at the time, I agreed. Just a couple of days later, however, I find that my opinion has changed, and I think my friend from Stoke was missing something.

Monday night I saw one of the most remarkable happenings I have ever seen in my entire life. I jumped off my couch, I yelled so loud that my girlfriend (who was in the other room) came rushing in asking what had happened, by which time I was already queuing up the replay to watch it again… and again. What I had seen was more than remarkable, it was unbelievable. They say you can’t go home again, and I’m sure a thousand articles being written today are saying the same thing, but damnit, if you’re Thierry Henry, maybe you just can.

I saw a man return home as a legend, after a five-year absence, and not just for a curtain call and a bow, but to show that he still had some magic left in him.

As a fan of more than just football, upon the close of Arsenal’s 1-0 win against Leeds I immediately started groping for another moment in sport that compared to Henry’s game-winner on his return. Only one moment came to mind, and that was the return of Rick Ankiel to the St. Louis Cardinals in the fall of 2007.

The circumstances around Ankiel’s return differed greatly from those of Henry’s. Once the hottest young left-handed pitching prospects in Major League Baseball; Ankiel’s career seemingly went down in flames on a national stage during the 2000 playoffs. When he returned to play for the Cardinals seven years later, this time a power-hitting outfielder rather than a flame-throwing pitcher, he hit a homerun in his first game in the majors in seven years.

Henry’s return was not that of an unlikely underdog who battled the odds, as Ankiel’s was, but rather a victory lap of sorts. That being said, the anticipation surrounding his return mirrors the feelings Cardinals fans had back in 2007. Wanting so badly for it to work out well, fearing that it may disappoint and forever put a sad cap on the player’s career with the team. Thankfully, in both cases, the fan was rewarded with a moment that they will likely remember for the rest of their lives; the moment that we as fans barely dare to hope for, the fairytale ending.

Coming back around to my new friend from Stoke (you thought I’d forgotten about him, didn’t you?) and his advice that I disengage emotionally from my sports teams. On second thought, I think he’s wrong. While most of the time it would be perfectly sensible advice to not get emotionally involved in the fate of your football team, for those moments of magic, like we witnessed in Thierry Henry on Monday night, it’s all worth it. I’ll take all the bad, if it means I get to cry tears of joy because a man, that once was greatness personified, came back to his club, pulled on the jersey again, and put the ball in the back of the net one last time. And if that moment is all Henry gives us in this, his two-month encore, well that’s plenty for me, because I got to witness greatness one more time, and I’ll be damned if it all wasn’t worth it.