Thursday night was amongst one of the more embarrassing in recent history for Arsenal Football Club.
That is even in a decade that has seen them frequently lose emphatically away to their rivals in the Premier League, get thumped by Europe’s elite in the Champions League and lose a League Cup final to Birmingham City.
The Gunners were beaten 1-0 by BATE Borisov on Thursday evening in Belarus, leaving them behind heading into next week’s second leg at the Emirates Stadium. Although it is likely that Unai Emery’s team will come back to progress, it is a position they would much rather not be in.
Arsenal face Southampton in the Premier League the Sunday after next Thursday’s second leg in a fixture they must win in order to keep the pressure on Manchester United, who have now stolen fourth place.
Finishing in the top four/winning the Europa League has to be the priority for Arsenal this summer, with Emery needing it for extra funds in the transfer market if nothing else. He was left handcuffed in January, only being able to sign loan players that prevented moves for Ivan Perisic and Yannick Carrasco.
No top four again?
Emery was defiant after Thursday’s loss, saying: "It's the first match. We are going to play another 90 minutes next week and I'm sure it's going to be different," yet even he must be concerned about missing out on the top four once again.
It became a running joke that Arsenal celebrated fourth place as a trophy every year throughout the early Emirates era under Arsene Wenger, with the team failing to compete at the top level for silverware.
With cash restricted due to moving stadiums, Wenger was not spending at the same level as his rivals but was still getting his team Champions League each football, keeping their heads above water in doing so.
Arsenal fans would often bemoan that fact, but compared to what they are now experiencing they would certainly be glad to make a return to perennial appearances in Europe’s elite club competition.
With Manchester United now looking set to exit the Champions League following their 2-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side look set to have a straight run at the Premier League between now and the end of the season. If they are knocked out of the FA Cup on Monday night - something they will be doing all they can to avoid - then they will have no outside distractions at all.
Arsenal face both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United in their first two games of March, with both fixtures set to be vital in their hopes of reaching the top four this season. However, each of their last eight matches of the campaign are against teams outside of the top six.
On current form, United are favourites to finish fourth ahead of both Arsenal and Chelsea, leaving the Gunners with a potential third straight season in the Europa League ahead of them.
The new Tottenham
Jamie Carragher recently compared Chelsea to Arsenal, saying: "City have been outstanding, but this has been as bad as anything from Chelsea this season.
"It's only halfway through Sarri's first season but the worst thing I can say is it looks like he has turned Chelsea into Arsenal.
"The Arsenal team that has got battered away from home in the last seven or eight years because they have been too weak. You couldn't say that about Chelsea in the past, but this looks like a weak team."
It was a pretty damning indictment against Chelsea, who were once known as one of the strongest teams in the Premier League when they had the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Weak was not a word ever associated with them.
What’s worse is the fact that this Arsenal team isn’t even living up to the expectation of the teams of the era Carragher mentioned. At least those teams were consistently qualifying for the Champions League - right now the Gunners look on course to miss out once again.
So used to being the dominant force in north London, Arsenal have now traded places with Tottenham as the team looking up to and aspiring to be on their rivals level.
On the same week that Arsenal were losing to a team from Belarus that hadn’t played a competitive game since December, Tottenham were defeating Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund 3-0 at Wembley Stadium. They also did so without two of their star players in Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
Arsenal can’t even get their £350,000-per-week midfielder Mesut Ozil to play in their team, having fallen completely out of favour under Unai Emery.
After 26 games in the Premier League season, Tottenham are 10 points ahead of Arsenal in the table and are only five points off the pace in the title race, refusing to stop being an irritant to Liverpool and Manchester City.
Spurs may not win a trophy again this season, but they look far more likely to do so within the next 18 months than their north London rivals do, for whom a place in the top four would suffice if offered to them.
Arsenal supporters will now poke fun at Spurs for a lack of silverware in this ‘successful’ period for the club, much in the way in which Tottenham fans would when Arsenal were celebrating getting into the top four and nothing else.
Ultimately, Mauricio Pochettino has built this team to a level in which they have now surpassed Arsenal, beating them at the Emirates in the Carabao Cup and are still 10 points clear in the table in spite of their defeat to Emery’s team in the Premier League.
Thursday night’s defeat may not prove to be one that has a cataclysmic impact on the rest of their season, but was yet another reminder of how far Arsenal have to go until they can compete at the top level again.
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