A FAMILIAR theme in the last few seasons has been this – Arsenal start strongly and Arsene Wenger declares this is the year his young side will come of age and display the mental strength required to win the Premier League title.
Then it all goes a little pear-shaped.
As much as most football purists, who love to see the game played the proper way, would like Wenger to be proved right, the fact remains that the Gunners have won only one trophy (the FA Cup in 2005) since waltzing their way to the title in a remarkable 2003-04 campaign, when they went through the season unbeaten.
Since then, their Premier League campaigns have started encouragingly, then fizzled out – and it has happened in even more spectacular style than usual this year.
A few weeks ago, Arsenal were fighting to win trophies on four fronts. Now there is only the league left.
A Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham started the rot, then came Champions League heartbreak at Barcelona (has there ever been a worse decision than the dismissal of Robin van Persie?), followed by an FA Cup quarter-final exit at Manchester United.
And as for their title challenge, successive draws against Blackburn, West Brom and Sunderland seem to have put paid to that.
Going into the weekend, Arsenal trail leaders United by seven points.
Wenger’s men have a game in hand, but with the season almost done, and the United bandwagon showing few signs of coming off the rails, the gap seems too wide.
All of which has left everyone connected with Arsenal feeling a little depressed – and it’s why Sunday’s game couldn’t really have come at a worse time as far as Blackpool are concerned.
Wenger has been talking tough this week – he is hurting and wants a big response from his players at Bloomfield Road.
That’s not good news for the Seasiders.
“You could see that mentally the focus, the mental energy level was not good enough (against Blackburn, which ended goalless at the Emirates last Saturday),” Wenger said.
“You have to force the pace a bit more and show more determination to score a goal, and we couldn’t.
“What we do is to first analyse what happened, why and then prepare for the next game.
“I don’t think you have to pick the players up – the players have to think about their performance, and me too.
“We all have to think about our performance and come back with something better.”
In other words, Wenger will demand a huge improvement on Sunday.
Van Persie, the Gunners top scorer with 11 league goals, is determined to answer his manager’s rallying cry, not least because he believes catching United at the summit of the Premier League is still possible.
“The way I look at it is that United have two extra big games before they have to play us (on May 1),” said the frontman. “Hopefully they will have to dig deep into their reserves and come here tired.
“That’s how I am looking at it because I want us to have the biggest chance against them.
“We do believe. We still play them and we have a chance to get three points there.
“Everyone stays positive and speaks to each other and says, ‘Come on, we’ve eight games to play for, give it your all’. We will do that.”
Arsenal’s chances at Bloomfield will be boosted by the return of skipper Cesc Fabregas, who has shrugged off a hamstring problem and is expected to start for the first time since his ill-advised back-heel at the Nou Camp helped Barcelona dump the Gunners out of Europe.
There’s no point talking about Arsenal’s other threats, as it would take too long – they are everywhere.
PFA player of the year nominated Samir Nasri, jet-heeled Theo Walcott, young England maestro Jack Wilshere – their squad is bulging with talent.
They have lost five games this season though, and failed to win any of their last three, so Blackpool do have a chance.
If they do get a result, it would rank up there with Ian Holloway’s finest achievements for Arsenal really are that good.