This is Arsenal’s daunting fixture list over the next week in what might just be the biggest – and arguably most important – period in Mikel Arteta’s time as manager thus far.
And following Sunday’s FA Cup exit at the hands of Nottingham Forest, there’s added importance for the Gunners’ next three games as it will shape the mood for the remainder of the season.
One way to get over the hurt of losing in one domestic cup competition is to progress in the other and Arsenal have the chance to do just that when they face Liverpool in their Carabao Cup semi-final, first leg match on Thursday.
Interestingly, the last time the Gunners lost in the FA Cup third round – ironically against Forest four years ago – they bounced back to beat Chelsea over two legs to reach the League Cup final.
Could history repeat itself?
Now, the north London outfit have already lost home advantage in the first-leg as a Covid-19 outbreak for Liverpool last week has resulted in the order of the tie being reversed.
So instead of the decider taking place at Anfield, Arsenal must now get a result on Thursday that ensures they are still in the cup tie for the second leg at the Emirates Stadium on January 20.
And the incentive for getting past Jurgen Klopp‘s side is moving one step closer to being back in Europe for the 2022/23 campaign as the Carabao Cup winners will qualify for the play-off stages of the Europa Conference League.
But whilst the reward of winning the Carabao Cup is a place in next season’s third-tier European competition, the Gunners still have a chance of ending their five-year hiatus from the Champions League.
Currently sitting fourth in the Premier League table – albeit having played two games more than Tottenham ahead of next weekend’s North London derby – it’s their best chance of a top-four finish since Unai Emery’s first season in charge.
This may explain why some Arsenal fans, surprisingly, aren’t too disappointed about the Forest defeat as there’s a theory the result could help ensure his side do not drop out of the top-four race.
With Thomas Partey away with Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations, Granit Xhaka unavailable after testing positive for Covid-19 and Ainsley Maitland-Niles already in action for Roma after joining on loan, the Gunners’ lack of midfield options was exposed and they paid the ultimate price.
That factor, coupled with Cedric Soares, Rob Holding and Nuno Tavares failing to take their chance to impress, highlighted the gap between the Arsenal regulars – Takehiro Tomiyasu, Gabriel Magalhaes and Kieran Tierney – and the squad players.
Furthermore, Arsenal’s fixture list will be even lighter from February onwards, mirroring the one game per week schedule from the first half of the season.
As a result, some of the chatter on Twitter is that the Gunners wouldn’t have been able to sustain a top-four challenge and have a deep run in the FA Cup, so losing to Forest has meant no fixture congestion.
It remains to be seen if Arsenal will benefit from their FA Cup exit and that can only be determined when the final Premier League table is known on May 22.
But the upcoming games against Liverpool and Spurs were always going to be crucial regardless of what happened at the City Ground.
If the Gunners can emerge from their next three games with a place in the Carabao Cup final and remain in pole position for fourth place in the Premier League, then Arteta will have passed his biggest test as manager.
And the Spaniard can deliver the perfect response to the one big concern regarding Arsenal at the moment.
Despite an upturn in form over the past couple of months, defeats at Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City prove the Gunners have a problem getting results against the so-called ‘top sides’ in the country.
With trips to Anfield and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to come in the space of three days, the Gunners have two chances to prove the likes of United legend Roy Keane wrong.
Being one step closer to winning a trophy whilst sealing a return to Europe at the same – even if it’s the Europa Conference League – as well as a win over their biggest rivals, would be a fantastic outcome for Arsenal from this defining seven-day period.