By Peter Staunton
Inevitable then, that Arsenal's season boils down to a key sequence of matches in the spring. Don't expect much from it. By the end of this gruelling run they may well be out of the running for three competitions. Their loss at Liverpool is difficult to view in isolation. When a performance is not only expected but required, this Arsenal have not been up to the task.
"It's always what you make of the defeats that decides your future," Arsene Wenger told the press after the 5-1 Anfield mauling. "What is important is that we respond to the result, especially that we respond with a different performance because our performance overall was poor."
Wenger's team are not one you'd back in a must-win game against a direct rival. We know the reasons. We've been told them before. Can't afford the wages. Can't afford the transfer fees. Miraculous that they are even riding the coat-tails of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea considering the disparity in purchase power. That does not count for an awful lot now, though. It's put up or shut up for Wenger and Arsenal.
They enter this vital period light on numbers in midfield and in attack, and the manager is incapable of relieving the burden. Their one signing of the winter window, Kim Kallstrom, was an inadequate sop, while their pursuit of Julian Draxler can be filed in the drawer alongside the rest of the failed captures of the latter Wenger era. Arsenal don't mind letting the talent thrive elsewhere where the prices are paid and the money higher. So long as Wenger's Champions League ticket is punched every season, he will be given a free ride from the directors.
But it's not good enough now. His statement signing, Mesut Ozil, is becoming a white elephant. Their chances of a Premier League title have regressed to the extent that Arsenal fans must now wonder how they ever convinced themselves they were in the race in the first place. Accustomed to dejection, this lot. Accustomed to falling short and always met with an excuse.
There was a time when, after losing key players or watching a rival club spend lavishly, Arsenal fans would forgive their team's failings in the context of the awesome power that lay elsewhere in the league. But there is a frustration bordering on dejection among Arsenal fans approaching these key fixtures against Manchester United, Liverpool and Bayern. That is because the league landscape is very different this season. The continuity at Arsenal far outranks that at any other top-four contending team. They didn't lose one first-team player in either transfer window. In Ozil, in fact, they spent as big as anyone.
The excuses run out here. These next three matches and the four following the games against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea will not only define Arsenal's once-promising campaign but the very legacy of Wenger. There are too many voicing shotgun opinion these days; a win makes a manager, a loss breaks him. But this chain of matches now deserves the weight attached to it. Failure at a time when Wenger has full control over the team, its personnel and its fortunes leaves the veteran open to exposure and scrutiny.
If, by the end of March, Arsenal are out of the running then the club's directors must examine where their manager can yet lead them. The goodwill Wenger earns for reinventing Arsenal and leading them to a new stadium only extends so far.
ROONEY WITH PLENTY TO PROVE BEFORE WINDFALL DEAL
Manchester United are slaves to Wayne Rooney's financial ambition. In their current precarious position, United dread losing one of their best players - and he knows it. To that extent, Rooney can name his price and United will be obligated to pay it. But if the English champions have aspirations of returning to the very top of their game then Rooney should have to do an awful lot better - and prove he is worth the landmark deal coming his way.
As far as contract negotiations go, Rooney is playing United like a fiddle. By letting his deal run towards its summer 2015 expiry, he provokes itchy feet in the United camp and they become all the more eager to tie him down - by any means necessary. For the money they are about to pay, the club have every right to demand a lot more in return.
Has Rooney been United's player of the season? Perhaps, along with Adnan Januzaj, that is the case. But this is the worst United team in a decade. He is excelling in a mid-table side. If he wasn't standing out, it would be remarkable.
The Premier League is currently awash with as many top class players as it has had in recent seasons with Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard and Luis Suarez a joy to behold every week. Those three in particular are leading their sides towards their objectives.
Could the same be said of Wayne Rooney at present? Not a chance. Critics are keen to stress that United's brilliant forwards are being inhibited by David Moyes. That is an excuse. Players are well fit to hide behind a manager when the shells are being lobbed at him. The truly great find a way and take that pressure off the man in the dug-out.
The new contract should come step by step. First, United should be aware that they are certainly not investing the best part of £75 million (€90m) in one of the world's best current players. They are safeguarding the future of a man who has twice held the club to ransom and who has tacitly admitted that his ambition - breaking Sir Bobby Charlton's scoring record - is entirely selfish.
Rooney was no better than any number of Fulham players on Sunday and never cut the figure of a man capable of turning the game in his team's favour. He clipped a few passes over the heads of the Fulham defence to little avail and can even consider himself unlucky not to have scored. But he lacks that certain spark that comes with the prime performers - that guile, that imagination.
The contract coming his way will be the best, and last, in his career. That money might best be invested elsewhere. Wayne Rooney has much to prove if he fancies himself as a £300,000-per-week (€360,000) footballer.
HAMBURG IN MELTDOWN
No matter how bad things seem for any of the struggling Premier League clubs, that suffering is nothing compared to the situation now facing Hamburg in the Bundesliga. The former European Cup winners, who have never in their history been relegated from the top flight, lost their sixth game in succession at the weekend and remain one point adrift in the German drop zone.
Hertha Berlin were the latest side to easily surpass a woeful HSV on Saturday, winning 3-0 in Hamburg, but the result on the pitch only tells half the story. Players including Rafael van der Vaart were reportedly pelted with eggs, lighters and beer cups by outraged fans after the game, who also attempted to deface the players' swanky sports cars.
"I understand the fans' disappointment, but it's not okay when players are attacked," Van der Vaart told the press. "That shakes you to the core." There were also reports that police had to use batons and pepper spray to fend off some 250 supporters, who chanted: "You have no heart."
Bert van Marwijk, who coached the Dutch to the 2010 World Cup final, has failed to turn things around since replacing Thorsten Fink in the dugout in September. Nonetheless, the fan ire towards the players is well understood in the boardroom.
"We are always changing coaches here and there is talk about the position once again," chairman Carl-Edgar Jarchow said last week. "What annoys me is that the highly-paid players are as such taken out of the firing line again."
The club have not scored in their last three Bundesliga outings and are winless since November. They are favourites for the drop alongside minnows Eintracht Braunschweig, whom they face next week in their most important match of the season.
"I've never experienced such a sh*tty and depressing situation," defender Marcell Jansen said. Cheer up Marcell, you've only got Bayern Munich in the cup on Wednesday!