Arsenal return to action on Sunday after more than two weeks without a game. After beating AC Milan 3-1 at the Emirateson March 15, they didn’t play the following weekend because of a clash with FA Cup fixtures, so this international break has been even longer for them than anyone else.
There are obviously upsides to that. Despite some players’ participation in games for their country, it has been a chance for others to rest and recharge the batteries at a key point in the campaign.
Aaron Ramsey reportedly underwent a small procedure, and the sight of him back in full training hopefully means that Arsene Wenger no longer has to nurse him through the final weeks of the season. Although, given the clear priorities between now and May, it does make it easier for the Arsenal boss to do that if he feels it will benefit the side.
There was also the return of Alexandre Lacazette after his knee operation, and that is an important development as Wenger looks to salvage something in Europe from what has been a hugely disappointing domestic campaign. The Gunners sit a full 33 points behind the league leaders, and 13 off great rivals Tottenham in fourth, and by any measure that is a significant underachievement.
So, when we talk about priorities, there’s no doubt where they lie. Not only does the Europa League provide tangible success in the shape of silverware — one that would be just the third continental trophy in the club’s history — it also has a second prize of entry into next season’s Champions League.
It’s not a secondary prize either, as a club like Arsenal should be playing in Europe’s elite competition, and when it comes to rebuilding this summer — as they certainly must — having the lure of Champions League football is no small thing when you want to attract top-quality players.
What will be key is how Wenger finds the balance between Premier League and Europe. There is only the remotest chance of Arsenal finishing above the sixth position they currently reside in, so for some the domestic matches might be considered a distraction from the main target.
However, that is underestimate the importance of momentum. While the focus will rightly be on beating CSKA Moscow and making progress in the Europa League, that would be made a little easier if Arsenal, as a team, were playing with rhythm and confidence. Lurching from disappointing results in the Premier League to then try to respond in Europe is not impossible, but it would make things more challenging.
There is more scope for rotation, thus keeping key players fit and fresh for the games that really matter, but Wenger will know his task will be easier overall if his team is not constantly firefighting from one lacklustre performance to the next. So, astute management of his squad will be key to achieving anything this season.
It also won’t be lost on the Frenchman that his future is very much tied to what happens between now and May. If they crash out of Europe, then amble through the rest of the Premier League games like a team that has nothing to play for, then the pressure — already pretty intense — will grow, alongside calls for Arsenal to make a change.
To finish that far behind the title winners and slip even further down the table than they did last season should only result in one outcome, and that is a parting of the ways. Yet if he guided his team to a European trophy and got them back into the Champions League, he could make a very strong case to majority shareholder Stan Kroenke — very much in the manager’s corner anyway — that he should be allowed see out the final year of his contract, at least.
For both players and manager, there’s a lot riding on what remains of this campaign, and with a decent record of finishing seasons strongly, Wenger will be hoping he can pull off another late, great turnaround.
Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.