Paul Parker

Play-off make or break for Arsenal

Paul Parker

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UEFA handing Arsene Wenger an additional two-match ban ahead of Arsenal's trip to Udinese is yet another bitter blow for the Frenchman.

It is just one thing after another for Wenger at the moment. It's becoming a real horror show.

If someone who had never heard of football before started reading about the Gunners over the past week then they could be forgiven for thinking his full name was Beleaguered Arsene Wenger, so often has that adjective been used to describe his recent status.

I think that UEFA's actions are petty, and have set a worrying precedent that they will be forced into following from now on. Arsenal are right to appeal the decision, because it seems that the exact rules are not clear on what a manager can and can't do when confined to the stands.

Some people may think it is irrelevant, and debate whether or not a manager sitting in the dugout makes a difference, but I can tell that it does with certain bosses. Just their presence on the sidelines can be reassuring and motivational, especially for younger players, and some coaches are at their best when having to react quickly and decisively to a change in circumstances.

Arsenal could really do with Wenger in the technical area when they travel to Udinese guarding a slender one-goal lead from the first leg of their Champions League play-off, because their team is in disarray at the moment. Cesc Fabregas is gone, Samir Nasri may not play even if he is still at the club come Wednesday and there are injury doubts over Jack Wilshere and three of their four senior centre-backs.

They finished Saturday's 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool with Henri Lansbury, Carl Jenkinson and Ignasi Miquel on the pitch and Emmanuel Frimpong sent off, and they could all feature on Wednesday in what has become a crucial game in Arsenal's recent history.

In the past they have always come through qualification play-offs and in some style, winning all eight matches across the four ties in the past five years. This time, however, it is different. Udinese proved themselves to be a very good side last season, and even without Alexis Sanchez they looked a real threat in the first leg, which Arsenal were fortunate to win 1-0.

If they fail to reach the group stages this season it would be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. The chairman said a while back that Arsenal were easily able to afford missing a season in the Champions League, but the impact would go way beyond that. They would struggle to attract the calibre of player needed for them to keep their place in the top four, and it could become a downward spiral. Would a player of Robin van Persie's class tolerate two seasons missing out on Europe's top competition?

Wenger insists he is not stubborn in refusing to splash out loads of money on players he does not deem meet his high standards. I can respect that standpoint in principle, but he seems to continually pass up on recruiting players who would add something to his squad either because of their price or their age. One such target, Juan Mata, appeared to be Arsenal-bound at one point this summer but the Gunners have let him slip through their fingers and now he is on his way to Chelsea.

Perhaps Wenger now wields too much power at the club. He has fully earned all the respect he is given, having overseen an incredible transformation of the club on almost every level since taking over 15 years ago. But now it seems that the club is going backwards under him.

What happened to the team that came within 15 minutes of winning the Champions League five years ago? What has happened to the strong spine running through his team that ensured they were at least staying competitive even when they weren't winning trophies?   

It is still difficult for me to get my head around, but there is a real possibility that Arsenal may lose this tie and not make the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in 13 years.

If they do manage to scrape through with this depleted team, then perhaps it will be the wake-up call that Wenger and the club's board so desperately need. If they do not, then who knows what the future may hold.

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