18 February 2013

Throwin' in the Towel against Bayern

delightful shade of orange, innit?
Time to put the defeat to Blackburn defeat behind us. It's not like winning would guarantee a trophy. There would still be Chelsea, Man City, and Man U to contend with, among others. Maybe, then, it's for the better to have crashed out now instead of getting to the final and losing there. Maybe. It's probably for the best to ignore the FA Cup for now. One last thought on it, though, inspired by Wenger's comments after the loss. He said, "Maybe [the players] thought, 'Ok. we're playing at home against Blackburn. It will be difficult, but we will win." It's a bit too tidy in my mind to blame the players so exclusively. As I previously mentioned, subbing out six regulars sends a message from the manager about the game's importance. Every player in the room looks at the starting XI and thinks, "Oh, this isn't such a big deal. Look who's starting." Sure, Wenger and Bould probably got up and talked up the importance of the game, but this ends up looking like a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of moment. We reaped what we sowed on Saturday. While I sympathize with the belief in keeping players fresh for Tuesday's UCL match with Bayern, I don't respect it.

A few weeks ago, our priorities were as follows:
  1. place 4th or higher in the EPL
  2. win the FA Cup
  3. make progress in the UCL.
Now that priority #2 is off the table, option #1 should be our focus. The same logic that was misapplied to roster selection against Blackburn--keep key players fresh for an important game--should now be properly applied to roster selection against Bayern. We face Aston Villa on Saturday, 2/23. Before we scoff at a team that sits one point above relegation, the Acorns tied us at Villa Park, beat Liverpool at Anfield, and tied Everton at Merseyside. Given our needs and prospects, I'd say that Wenger should, at a minimum, rest the five regulars who started against Blackburn--Vermaelen, Koscielny, Monreal, Arteta, Giroud. To that list, I'd add Wilshere due to nagging injury. This may amount to throwing in the towel. So it goes. Last year, in similar circumstances, we threw on a strong starting XI against AC Milan and came out on the short side of a 4-0 score. Bayern currently sits 15 points clear in the Bundesliga with an even-more impressive 57-7 goal differential. Seven goals conceded in 22 games. Wow.

However, I'm not awe-struck by Bayern. I'm impressed, but that's not what this is about. This is about the bigger picture. Even if we beat Bayern, we'd still have to run a gauntlet that could include the likes of PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man U, and Juventus. At the risk of splitting hairs, I'm being realistic without being pessimistic. Our remaining slate of Prem games, which is a known, is far more promising than our potential slate of future UCL games, which is an unknown, and the devil you know is, well, still a devil.

Fourth place is still our first priority, and the fact that it's still vital to our future ups the ante. Finish fourth, qualify for next year's UCL. Qualify for next year's UCL, attract stronger players. The lure of playing Champions League football should not be underestimated. I know full-well that I speak from both sides of my mouth on this, saying in one moment, "blow it off" and saying seconds later, "it matters." However, the distinction between competing in it this year and qualifying for it next year is just strong enough to allow it. I'm going with F. Scott Fitzgerald when he said, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Calling my intelligence first-rate may me a stretch of the imagination, but it conforms to my current worldview, so I'm sticking with it.

All the best to our boys on Tuesday. Join the fray in the comments below.