By Greg Stobart
Arsenal will be relieved to see the back of this season, but the joyous dancing on the pitch and high in the stands at St James’ Park portrayed a well-founded optimism about what the future holds for Arsene Wenger's side.
A narrow 1-0 victory at Newcastle was enough for the Gunners to sneak over the line and clinch fourth spot and a subsequent place in next season’s Champions League. That they did so at the expense of Tottenham, their greatest rivals, made it all the sweeter.
A season that has seen Wenger seriously questioned and discontent among supporters reach boiling point has ended on a high, with Arsenal ready to pit their wits against the best teams in Europe for a 17th successive campaign.
This is not a time for celebration or reflection on a job well done, however. A massive opportunity presents itself for Arsenal to re-establish themselves as a major force in English football, one they can ill afford to waste.
The foundations are in place in a squad that has no obvious stars but bagfuls of spirit, shown by their wonderful run of eight victories in 10 matches since defeat in the north London derby in March.
“Character” and “spirit” have been Wenger’s watchwords in recent weeks, and the building blocks are now in place for Arsenal to extend the gap to the chasing pack and haul in both Manchester clubs and Chelsea above them.
Arsenal have £123 million cash sitting in the bank, have just signed a £150m new sponsorship agreement with Emirates and are due to announce a £30m-a-year kit deal with manufacturers Puma. Their infrastructure and business model makes Arsenal one of the best-run and most cash-rich clubs in Europe, even without £30m-plus from participation in the Champions League.
Now the manager must throw away his predilection for counter-productive caution and use that financial advantage to ensure Arsenal have a squad ready to compete for silverware when the new season kicks off on August 17.
Wenger has up to £90m to spend on transfers and salaries in the summer to strengthen a squad that produced title-challenging form in the final third of the season. A few tweaks and the Londoners should be challenging for the Premier League title.
Perhaps most crucially, the Gunners will not have to replace one of their star players this summer as they have in the last two years with the sales of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie.
Bacary Sagna is the most likely first choice player to leave but on this season’s form the right-back is easily replaceable, with Sochaux defender Sebastien Corchia the favourite to replace the Frenchman.
Captain Thomas Vermaelen could also seek a move after losing his place in the side, but his departure would not be a major blow and talks have already taken place over a swoop for Swansea defender Ashley Williams.
An experienced goalkeeper to rival Wojciech Szczesny, right-back, midfield anchorman and striker have been the positions targeted by Wenger - and a top four finish means Arsenal will be able to attract A-list players to the Emirates Stadium this summer.
Someone like Stevan Jovetic could provide the star quality to close the gap to the sides above them, while their genuine interest in Wayne Rooney reflects a real desire to make a go of it next season, to offer top dollar for top tier players.
Of equal importance is that Jack Wilshere can stay injury free next term and dominate matches in central midfield. The 21-year-old made 25 Premier League appearances this season but was again hampered by injury problems that never allowed him to find his best form.
After all the negativity that has surrounded Arsenal in the last 12 months, the future looks bright. Now is the time to make sure that any dancing next year will be to celebrate the end of their trophy drought.
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