After a dazzling start to the season, Arsenal could see its place in the title race fade away during this crucial stretch.
"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 is 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 coattails 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.
The Gunners enter this vital period light on numbers in midfield and in attack, and the manager is incapable of relieving the burden. The one signing of the winter window, Kim Kallstrom, was inadequate, while the pursuit of Julian Draxler can be filed in the drawer alongside the rest of the failed captures of the latter Wenger era. Arsenal doesn'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. The 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 is out of the running then the club's directors must examine where their manager can yet lead them. The good will Wenger earns for reinventing Arsenal and leading it to a new stadium only extends so far.
ROONEY WITH PLENTY TO PROVE BEFORE DEAL
Manchester United is a slave to Wayne Rooney's financial ambition. In its current precarious position, United dreads losing one of its 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 toward its summer 2015 expiration, he provokes itchy feet in the United camp and the team becomes all the more eager to tie him down — by any means necessary. For the money it is about to pay, the club has 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 midtable 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 toward 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 dugout.
The new contract should come step by step. First, United should be aware that it is certainly not investing the best part of 75 million pounds in one of the world's best current players. It is safeguarding the future of a man who has twice held the club to ransom and who has tacitly acknowledged that his ambition — breaking Sir Bobby Charlton's scoring record — is entirely selfish.
Rooney was no better than any number of Fulham players Sunday and never cut the figure of a man capable of turning the game in his team's favor. He clipped a few passes over the heads of the Fulham defense 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-pound-per-week player.
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 straight game over the weekend and are in the German drop zone.
Hertha Berlin was 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, and the supporters also attempted to deface the players' swanky sports cars.
"I understand the fans' disappointment, but it's not OK 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 toward the players is 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 has not scored in its last three Bundesliga outings and is winless since November. It is a favorite for the drop alongside Eintracht Braunschweig, which Hamburg faces next week in its most important match of the season.
"I've never experienced such a ... depressing situation," defender Marcell Jansen said. Cheer up Marcell, you've only got Bayern Munich in the cup Wednesday.