IT HAS been apparent for some time that Arsene Wenger is a man under severe pressure.
The outlook couldn’t have been rosier for the Gunners on New Year’s Day. Top of the Premier League table with an entire month to mull over the transfer market and a Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich to look forward to.
Three months on and that oh so familiar feeling is brewing as another ultimately bleak campaign peters towards the finishing line.
But going nine years without a trophy in the cabinet and the unthinkable prospect of being absent from Europe’s top table next season, enough may be enough.
The extent of the turmoil that has resurfaced on numerous occasions this term was highlighted in the “back to basics” punchline that Wenger has repeatedly ushered in the build-up to this weekend’s pivotal Wembley showdown.
With a contract beyond this season yet to be agreed, Wenger’s days in the Emirates hotseat appear to be numbered – if the newspaper speculation is anything to go by.
Unless his unquestionable wisdom can conjure a solution to the elusive silverware drought in the not too distant future.
The FA Cup presents the salvation opportunity that Wenger desperately needs to regain the faith of the Arsenal supporters that looked on in disbelief during the crushing defeat at Everton, which emanated the first serious doubts that a top-four finish is beyond their reach.
A semi-final against a Championship side in front of a near 80,000 crowd at Wembley (and a multi-million audience on terrestrial TV) may just be the tonic to restore confidence that has been shattered on too many occasions since the turn of the year.
Either Hull, mid-table in the top-flight, or Sheffield United, perched below the League One play-offs, will lie in wait for the winners.
The scenario could hardly be better for the Gunners, whose season hinges on winning the competition which last brought them success back in 2005.
But as Birmingham demonstrated on that momentous February afternoon in 2011, almighty shocks can happen. And they can be damaging.
Wenger has stated the best way to beat Wigan – a side playing Premier League football just 12 months ago – is to “show them respect” and on reflection, you can understand why.
Those who witnessed their remarkable display at the Etihad Stadium in the quarter-finals would argue a Latics victory in the last four would barely represent a surprise scalp. They are the holders of the trophy after all.
Manchester City, Cardiff and Crystal Palace have already been seen off in this incredible repeat journey for the Lancashire side. Arsenal are next in the firing line. Uwe Rosler can smell more Premier League blood.
The promotion-chasing Latics have bigger items on the agenda in the form of a flourishing play-off push to sustain but a shot at more cup glory is too good to pass up.
After a dodgy start to a marathon campaign which has taken them from the outskirts of Slovenia to the heart of East Anglia, the momentum has gathered soaring pace at just the right time.
In contrast, Arsenal’s worrying downward spiral has come at precisely the wrong time.
Injuries to Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Laurent Koscielny and Lukas Podolski have contributed. The impact of their loss has been sorely felt on a squad that lacks the depth of Chelsea’s and Manchester City’s.
The latest abject display devoid of any composure, quality and desire whilst tarnished by defensive calamity illustrated that.
It raised another series of questions and left Everton just a solitary point behind them in fifth, with a game in hand at home to Crystal Palace.
It fell way below the standards that the Gunners have set this term and come to expect of themselves, Wenger was first to admit.
The tight battle, with Spurs still in with a shout, should go down to the wire with five games to go. In the context of scraping any remote success from the past nine months, there’s only one match that counts for the Arsenal.
As the season reaches its tail end, the protocol of players and managers fighting for their lives is normal. Now, even one of the most experienced men in the game is feeling the heat.
Wenger has nobly served the north London club for 17 years, steering them to regular honours in his first years.
He is owed a strong performance and an emphatic response from the squad that he assembled to challenge at the highest level but have fallen considerably short.
When Arsenal have been asked a major question this term, they have invariably fallen apart. Wigan will be fully aware of the woe they could inflict as the intense pressure piles up on a beleaguered 64-year-old.
With the axe seemingly hanging above his head, Wenger is a dead man walking and can ill-afford a defeat of any description on Saturday.
The intelligent Frenchman has been interrogated, criticised and praised to the high heavens during a season of significant highs and unprecedented lows.
You rarely slip under the radar when managing such a huge club steeped in illustrious history and when Wenger steps out onto the Wembley terraces, he knows the outcome of the next 90 minutes or more could determine his immediate future.
Pipping the Toffees to the final Champions League qualification spot and lifting a cup that doesn’t contain any beverage might just save his skin.
But should Arsenal fail to book a return to the national stadium on May 17 and be consigned to the Europa League, the repercussions for Britain’s current longest-serving manager could be fatal.
It’s last chance saloon, do or die.
Arsene Wenger Image by Paul Blank via Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License